Courageous Conversations – Five steps to dealing with difficult conversations between Manager and Employee

Courageous Conversations

The need for difficult or courageous conversations with individual employees often crops up for Managers. 

Common examples of causal factors include personality clashes within the team, a poor attitude, tardiness, workplace bullying, a difference of opinion, conflict between employees, substandard performance or communication breakdown.

The key to addressing and overcoming these obstacles is communication – a fundamental pillar to effective people leadership. The good news is that this is a learned skill, and with practice and guidance you can learn to master the art of courageous conversations.

1. Before having the difficult conversation with the employee in question, take some time to reflect

Being clear with yourself on the situation is important in preparing yourself for the conversation ahead. Be clear that the need for the conversation is not based on assumptions and ask yourself how the situation makes you feel. Are you anxious, angry, fearful, tense, or something else?

Being aware of and addressing any emotional responses within yourself that may impede you from having a calm, honest and open conversation is key. Keeping an open mind to others’ point of view is critical to establishing a favourable resolution that does not alienate the employee.

Ask yourself what a good outcome might look like? What are your parameters and how much are you willing to compromise?

Once you’re clear on what you want to achieve by having the conversation and have your own emotions and self-limiting beliefs in check, you’re ready to talk.

2. Have the conversation in person

When having a conversation with an employee that addresses potentially sensitive topics and carries risk, it as always wise to try and have the conversation in person.

Email and phone conversations lack the face-to-face interaction that plays an important role in human communication, and things can very easily be taken out of context.

Arranging a time and place to have the conversation demonstrates that you take both the matter at hand, and the other person’s position on that matter, very seriously.  The personal approach engenders a feeling of trust and approachability, and if handled correctly, will yield a far better result than the alternatives.

3. Take the time to listen

Research indicates that we only remember 25-50% of what we hear. That means that during a conversation people listen to less than half of what is being said.

Communication breakdown can happen when there is misunderstanding between what was said and what was heard and takes place when one or more of the parties are not actually listening to what is being said.

The person who is concentrating on what they will say next and looking for a gap in the conversation to do so, is not likely to be focused on what is being said at the time.

A further problem can arise when one person is so sure of what the other person is going to say that the content of the conversation is distorted to fit with expectations. Not trusting the speaker or passing judgement on what is being said can also impact communication success.

Active listening is a powerful communication technique that is essential when having courageous conversations.

As an active listener, you will be concentrating, understanding, responding, and then remembering what the other party has said to you.

4. Communicate clearly and honestly

When conversing with an employee about a situation that may be touchy or difficult, there is an ever-present risk of emotions escalating and a resulting breakdown of communication.
Often described as ‘people skills’, interpersonal skills are used to communicate and interact with others effectively in the face of such risks.

Understanding the various interpersonal skills that exist enables you to adapt your own style to suit specific situations and people in a way that increases both personal and professional success.
Non-verbal voice cues such as tone, pitch, volume, inflection, rhythm and rate of speech are all important aspects of effective communication.

When you are speaking the other person will be ‘reading’ your voice as well as listening to your words. These nonverbal aspects of speech are powerful clues as to the level of genuine interest you have.

Your ability to be mindful of time and to pace your comments will demonstrate your ability to truly listen and take an interest in what the other person is saying.

When you make sounds that reflect your understanding such as ‘ahh’, ‘um-mm’, ‘ohhh’ at the same time as showing appropriate eye and facial expressions will enhance the communication and level of trust between you both.

Here are a few additional tips to consider when having courageous conversations:

  1. Examine your own feelings around the situation that has brought about the need for a courageous conversation. Make sure you’re not making any dangerous assumptions or are being affected by your own emotional reaction to the circumstances.
  2. Examine the risks and rewards of having the conversation. Be clear on what a good outcome looks like, and what compromises can be made to achieve that.
  3. Be direct and provide detail and evidence. Avoid making generalisations and avoid dangerous assumptions.

5. Leverage the power of Non-Verbal Communication

Non-verbal communication is the process of communication through sending and receiving wordless messages.

It includes the impact of gestures, gazes, signs, eye contact, use of space, expressions, position of our arms and legs, the physical distance between the communicators, where we sit or stand in relation to others, nodding and other head movements and body language that conveys information without actually speaking.

Research shows that a staggering 93 percent of communication effectiveness is determined by nonverbal cues.

Human Communication Cues

The non-verbal signs that you send will tell the other person how well you are listening and your level of interest in what they are saying. Your non-verbal signs will either engender trust and a desire to continue the connection or they will generate disinterest, mistrust, frustration and confusion.

If you are stressed or anxious about something, do not initiate a conversation with a colleague. Stress will affect your ability to communicate well and you are more likely to misread people and give out confusing non-verbal signals. Once you are back in balance you will be more able to handle any conversation in a positive way.

Some tips on non-verbal communication

  • Be aware of the space between you and the other person if you are both seated at a round table. If you sit too close you may be invading the person’s ‘space’. Too far away may suggest that you are less interested in the conversation and are inadvertently creating distance.
  • Be alert to the mismatches between what your colleague is saying and the non-verbal cues they are sending you. Are they saying one thing, and their body language saying another?
  • Do not read too much into one non-verbal cue but rather consider all the signals you are receiving and sending. Are your non-verbal cues consistent with what you are saying?
  • Be careful not to offend others by mirroring their speech or behaviour. They are also likely to know about nonverbal communication — be honest and display your natural style. Be the person you are known to be.
  • Do not try to pretend to give out non-verbal cues by altering your tone of voice or body language to try and fit what you are saying. Others will pick up on this quickly and it will do little more than to destroy the trust in the relationship.
  • It can be foolhardy to assume you know what the person is saying based on body language alone. If there is discrepancy between what they are saying and their non-verbal cues, draw them out further through discussion to help them clarify the situation and so that you can have an accurate understanding of the real message your colleague is trying to convey.
Body language in the workplace

A useful model for Managers when engaging in difficult conversations.

When having a courageous or difficult conversation with an employee, the five-step model designed by Melissa Broderick of Harvard Medical School can be a useful framework.

1. Agree a time to talk

Be emotionally ready, identify and address any self-limiting beliefs, seek agreement to meet, suggest a time and date that is mutually convenient, find a place that is neutral, quiet and confidential.

2. Prepare

Identify the situation, who is involved, clarify values, interests and concerns, identify any underlying issues, consider what will happen if there isn’t a successful outcome, what will be the impact on all parties and think through possible solutions.

3. Define and discuss the problem

Show appreciation and optimism, reinforce confidentiality, briefly state the issue, invite the other person to tell you how they see the situation. Take turns stating issues and feelings. When speaking use “I” messages and collaborative language.

When listening, don’t interrupt; ask open questions; reflect feelings; pay attention to non-verbal communication. Shift from ‘me versus you’ to ‘us against the problem’; focus on behaviour or the issue, not the person; identify interests versus positions, find common ground, summarize new understandings and progress.

4. Find solutions

Brainstorm together with creativity and without judgement, problem solve with a focus on common goals, issues at hand. Agree on a mutually satisfactory solution or on an individual specific solution, ensuring the solution is balanced. Carry out a reality check – will the proposed solution work for the present and the future?

If you reach impasse, break the issue down and look for small gains, acknowledge commitment and progress, consider if and when to re-engage.

5. Follow up

If agreement has been reached, meet to review and refine if necessary.

If this topic pushes a button for you, or your business, get in touch with us for a friendly chat and find out how we can help!

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