Difficult Conversations: Practice makes proficient

Read Time: 2 minutes

Tamara Morton | March 2nd, 2022


Difficult conversations are a skill like driving a car, using an excel spreadsheet or making a presentation. And just like any skill, initially, they are not easy but with time and purposeful practice, they become easier and eventually like driving a car, become almost intuitive.

So why is it then, that so many people struggle to have these conversations in the workplace?

For many, the default reaction is to avoid difficult conversations because;

  • They are uncomfortable;
  • We may be concerned with how the person will react; and
  • We want to be liked and outcomes may threaten that.

If we continue to avoid difficult conversations, then what is the potential risk, what could it cost us over time?

  • Lost time-  For managers who have to deal with conflict in the workplace rather than focus on proactive leadership actions such as training and mentoring.
  • Employee disengagement and turnover- Due to impacts on morale. In a workplace environment ignoring a problem sends the message that the behaviour or action is acceptable.
  • Decreased productivity and efficiency – Underperformance and grievances impact both individual and team performance creating unnecessary distractions from the required tasks.
  • Psychological costs – Elements such as unaddressed behavioural issues have the potential to amplify into formal grievances, bullying or psychological worker's compensation claims.

 So how do we get better at difficult conversations? Like any other skill with practice. Here are a few top tips for difficult conversations:

  • Throw away the sandwich – The “feedback sandwich” does nothing more than dilute the core issue to be addressed with often irrelevant praise. When our pets or children behave in a negative way, we do not preface our response to them with praise.
  • Reframe your mindset- Most people want to do a good job, if we start to reframe difficult conversations as an opportunity for improvement, we are on our way to a continuous improvement culture.
  • Time is of the essence – Address issues as they arise. Prolonging the time between the behaviour and conversation only increases anxiety and makes the situation more difficult in the long run.
  • Observed behaviours- Employees can control behaviours not outcomes so focus your interactions on observed behaviours, whether positive or negative. E.g.  Great work John, the way you handled that difficult customer was perfect, you really went above and beyond.
  • Communication - It seems obvious but the ultimate hack for difficult conversations is establishing a habit and culture of consistent communication. When leaders are constantly communicating with their team everyone grows accustomed to giving and receiving feedback and the confrontational nature of the conversation is eliminated.

Take a look at our additional resources on difficult conversations

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