Make Difficult Conversations Easier

Signs that Leaders Create More Communication Challenges than they Solve.

Making Difficult Conversations EasierWorkplaces, no matter how harmonious, are filled with people of varying beliefs, opinions and points of view. Even when employees like each other and get along well, difficult conversations will come up between them, but how these conversations are handled makes all the difference to ensuring a positive workplace.

Unfortunately, some managers aren’t up to the challenge of facilitating team members through conversations. Worse yet, there are managers who are the cause of difficult conversations going off the rails, HR challenges, loss of productivity and team member resignations.

When approaching difficult conversations the outcomes are often dependent upon the mutual understanding of the topic and the level of agreement between those involved in the discussion. When the topic is clear, the conversation can still be difficult when there is a difference in perspectives or opinions. When the topic is multi-faceted or confusing, difficulties can arise when one or both parties develop an emotional investment and passion to “win”.

Of course there are other factors that impact communication outcomes from difficult topics. Consider how long the issue has existed or how often the difficult conversation has been avoided. Time gives challenging topics the opportunity to fester and become an even bigger issue. Plus, the personalities involved – from shy and introverted to outspoken and bullyish – will play a part in the outcome. Those who struggle to speak up risk not being heard. Those who are outspoken may dismiss or downplay an important issue.

Another variable can be the location where the difficult conversation takes place. There are big differences between what is said at the water cooler, in the boardroom or over a desk. Not to mention the shift that can take place depending upon whether the door is open or closed.

And let’s not forget the potential for power and personal dynamics when hierarchy, varying areas of expertise, emotional investment, personal ownership, politics, vendetta or power plays come along with a difficult conversation. The ability to resolve it grows that much more difficult.

All conversations are comprised of who, what, where, when and why. Unfortunately, that doesn’t make the issues clear to all parties. Sometimes, to establish clarity and move through the process, a manager is needed to mediate, but how conversations are handled directly impacts the end result.

There are five clear signs we’ve identified that confirm difficult conversations are being put off, handled poorly, made worse or just blatantly avoided by managers. When these signs exist and continue, expect already challenging conversations to grow exponentially.

Sign #1: Leave Difficult Conversations for Meetings

When managers resist having difficult conversations throughout the workday or as issues arise, others are left to carry the emotional burden of no resolution as time passes. The problem is put on hold and left to spin out of control or fall to the side while still creating challenges.

Difficult conversations need to happen in the moment. If they get too heated, then a time out or break will help to refresh perspectives and bring down the emotion. If a pause is required, set a time to come back and revisit the issue without too much delay.

Sign #2:  Difficult Conversations are All Talk, No Action

Managers might come across as being able and eager to take on difficult conversations but when the talk only appeases individuals in the moment and no action or change occurs, it’s a waste of time. The issue will continue.

Difficult conversations need to have a balanced exchange so there is agreement on both sides as to what outcomes are expected including action items and/or timelines.

Sign #3:  Difficult Conversations with Fear-Based Messages

Managers should be leaders and role models but when their power and authority feel challenged, some may resort to language and innuendos that instill fear in employees or allude to retribution while undermining processes. Playing the intimidation and fear mongering card is not part of good leadership, ever. Implying “because I’m the boss and I say so,” is not helpful.

Difficult conversations can only be successful when all parties engage in respectful, fair and honest talk. Clarity of the problem and options for solutions that are actionable and timely lead to positive change.

Sign #4:  Difficult Conversation that Throw Others Under the Bus

When managers are not good leaders, can’t figure out solutions and struggle to come up with options, difficult conversations turn into a witch hunt to single out who or what group is responsible for the problem. Finger-pointing and blame do nothing to move the conversation forward.

Identifying who is responsible can often be bypassed to get to a solution unless another underlying issue needs to be resolved. Difficult conversations require participants to step up, be responsible, take accountability and engage in solution creation.

Sign #5:  Difficult Conversations Used as Forecasting

Managers who are baffled or unsure how to tackle problems will use difficult conversations as a platform to talk a lot, allude to “what might be possible” and be so vague that no one can figure if there is any understanding of the problem or an attempt at a solution.

Difficult conversations require definition of the problem, clear and concise options and solution selection. There is no room for excess banter, empty promises, speculation or glorified offerings which never come to fruition.

My fingers are crossed that difficult conversations in your workplace do not have any of these five signs added to them by management. It’s hard enough for individuals to speak up and make positive change without the uncertainty of managers who send conversations spinning out of control. Help managers understand the signs and make conversations of all kinds beneficial.

If difficult conversations are handled poorly in your workplace and your leaders struggle to deal with them, it might be time for the Building Better Bosses program. Contact us at 604-349-8660 or  to get started on changing the communication craziness in your company.

Tags: , , , ,

This entry was posted by Pam Paquet and is filed under Bad or Challenging Managers, Communication, Employee Training, Leadership. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.