How Difficult can a Difficult Conversation Be? And What to do About It!

1st a question: “Do you think that the number of difficult conversations taking place in the workplace is on the increase?”

Well actually there are no firm stats to prove this one way or another.

However, a recent CIPD study found that 15% of employees had experienced bullying or harassment in the workplace in the preceding 2 years.

Ok? No, but even worse another 33% said they had witnessed this behaviour which suggests to me that there are many more occasions and times when certain sorts of conversations need to be taking place and probably at an earlier stage than when they actually do?

Challenging Conversations

For want of a better term let’s call them, ‘Challenging Conversations’ and perhaps we should ask how many managers and supervisors are being trained in how to identify the need for such conversations and how to initiate, conduct, record and follow-up on them?

The linked question then of course is how many Organisations and Businesses have proper policies and procedures in place, both to protect the corporate body, but also to ensure all employees can and do enjoy good relations and are able to work without fear, lett, or hindrance.

One might suspect that whilst larger organisations and companies will have cracked this nut and have due process and well documented procedures in place, it will be the small-to-medium sized businesses where there may be more likelihood of omission and not for any other reason than it is one more thing on their ‘To Do’ list which they’ve yet to get around to!

Effective Management

For effective management per se and the effective management of people and their performance in particular, not only are the right policies and procedures a prerequisite, there also needs to be the right training to develop skills for handling conflict and challenge, and the right support in place to ensure the process works fairly and effectively.

The Mudd Partnership works across the public, private and not-for-private sectors, with large and small employers, businesses and organisations supporting best practice and creating the conditions for Mindful Super Performance.

The company employs very experienced executive professional coaches and business mentors and in the course of our work we may be called upon to facilitate “Challenging Conversations” & provide the processes, training and support to effectively mediate & resolve conflicts. Disputes which if just left to fester, can undermine relations and performance and have a very real and damaging impact on the bottom line, or delivery of high quality services.

With this in mind we have put together some very practical guidance for any employer, or manager who now feels it’s time to start looking at this whole area and take steps to put in place the right processes, training and support.

Make a Start

So, I want to share some of that in this wee piece because the most important thing is to make a start and there is no better time than now!

Key to all this is an understanding that it basically boils down to effective Communication, with a set of actions and behaviours that underpin it all.

Control is pretty crucial too!

You need to set clear boundaries to stay in control of the situation. You need to control your emotions and be confident in the face of any conflict or challenge, &, You need to be in control of any action(s) you plan to take i.e. You must be prepared to see it through!

Control is also needed in how you manage any interaction. There is a balance to be struck between the amount of information and clarification needed to begin to find a resolution, or unnecessarily prolong or intensify the conflict by seeking too much information — perhaps because out of a sense of well intentioned fair play you want to ensure everyone has had a full opportunity to say their piece and be heard?

Framing & Naming

However, rather than ‘Framing & Naming’ the problem this can mean that the real issue or issues don’t get addressed and collectively you can loose sight of the why & the what.

Experience needs to be built-up and good judgement becomes important in these situations, but a fundamental skill that needs to be developed is the ability to listen and suspend judgement: Practice really listening and hearing what is really being said i.e. Listening for “The song beneath the words”.

Another key skill is the ability to frame and ask the right questions in the right way, with the right tone and using the right body language. Be professional. Be appropriate.

The questioning skills and techniques here are different to some degree from those used in coaching and in business mentoring for example, &, it can be appropriate to even have a loose script to keep things on track.

The focus is more on the facts

Rather than the feelings, keep the focus more on facts and the tangible stuff.

And whilst at the start of the conversation you may be asking ‘Open Questions’, you will soon move onto ‘Probing Questions’ and with information verified be using ‘Closed Questions’ where necessary.

You also need to be thinking about the outcome at all times and remain focussed on the issue, not the person.

As well as the softer skills — although there is nothing soft about dealing with an emotional or confrontational employee who might seem as though they are trying to unsettle or undermine you — there are some other very practical things you need to consider and also have in place.

First and foremost

Of course, front and centre, are the internal policies and procedures for handling discipline, grievance, absence and performance issues.

Even though you would rather try and pre-empt an issue turning into a running sore and then an angry boil that needs to be lanced by skilful action at an early stage, chances are that human emotion and other factors will quickly take things beyond this point.

You need a clear and actionable framework to follow & if you are starting on this journey there are some excellent sources of help to use as a starting point, including www.acas.org.uk/publications.

Whatever you do though, do not just try and wing it and if you are already employing staff, growing as a company, or becoming firmly established, you need these ‘fit-for-purpose’, transparent and accessible policies and procedures — & when you do have them don’t just make them available on the internet, or the intranet and expect your staff to read them! Positively draw attention to them and ensure everybody is aware of their responsibilities & their rights, which is all part of being a good employer.

And Secondly, be very practically minded about how and where you have any ‘Challenging Conversations’ or more formal meetings. A useful mantra to follow is Location, Layout & Time:

Location: consider confidentiality and reducing the chance of external and unbidden distractions e.g. Telephone e-mail etc

Layout: consider seating positions — sitting opposite someone with a table between you both in the early stages of a conversation may introduce an additional element of tension, whilst having extra chairs around might also put the other person on the defensive by allowing the impression to be given that other people may be expected; &

Time: Simply don’t rush it! Also be very conscious of your body language and match your pace to the other persons, although ultimately you must stay in overall control & again this can be a careful balancing act.

Paul Mudd is the author of ‘Uncovering Mindfulness: In Search Of A Life More Meaningful’ available on Amazon and www.bookboon.com; the ‘Coffee & A Cup of Mindfulness’ and the ‘Mindful Hacks For Mindful Living & Mindful Working’ series. He is also a Contributing Author to The Huffington Post and a Contributing Writer to Thrive Global. Through The Mudd Partnership he works with business leaders, organisations and individuals in support of change, leadership excellence, business growth, organistional and individual wellbeing and well doing, and introducing Mindfulness. He can be contacted at paul@themuddpartnership.co.uk and you can follow the continuing journey uncovering Mindfulness on Twitter @TheMindfulBook and at @Paul_Mudd

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