How to navigate difficult discussions at work

Jonathan Hart-Smith, CK Group’s Chief Executive Officer, attended this year’s PIPA Conference alongside members of our Clinical Recruitment team. We were proud to be one of the speakers at the conference, and Jonathan gave a talk focussing on ‘Difficult Discussions at Work’.

Types of difficult conversations:

Difficult conversations in the workplace can arise from various situations and contexts. These can include:

  • Addressing problems with an employee’s performance, such as missed deadlines or unmet expectations.
  • Mediating conflicts between colleagues, teams, or departments.
  • Discussing disciplinary actions, including warnings, suspensions or terminations due to policy violations, misconduct or repeated poor performance.
  • Negotiating salary raises or bonuses can be sensitive and challenging.
  • Communicating layoffs or company restructuring that might result in job losses or shifts in responsibilities.
  • Addressing personal issues affecting work performance such as health problems, mental health concerns or personal matters.
  • Discussing ethical concerns or breaches of conduct that require intervention or resolution.
  • Providing constructive criticism without demotivating or discouraging an employee.
  • Conversations around diversity, equity and inclusion addressing issues related to bias, discrimination or inclusivity in the workplace – see our unbiased hiring document.
  • Conversations resulting from client or customer complaints due to dissatisfaction with services provided.

What are typical reactions to conflict/difficult discussions?

Negative reactions include:

  • Defensiveness
  • Avoidance
  • Anger and Frustration
  • Shutting Down
  • Stress or Anxiety

Positive reactions include:

  • Openness and Engagement
  • Reflection and Improvement
  • Compromise or Collaboration
  • Seeking further Support
  • Resolution and Growth

What are the benefits of a difficult conversation?

Difficult conversations at work, whilst uncomfortable, can bring about numerous benefits that contribute to successfully maintaining a positive work environment.

  • Conflict Resolution
  • Improved Relationships
  • Better Communication
  • Increased Innovation
  • Personal Growth
  • Positive Company Culture

Read an overview of Jonathan’s talk below for some interesting insights on how to approach difficult conversations:

Choose the right topic to focus on

Use the ‘CPR’ technique and condense your concern into a single focus:

  • Content – It’s happened once, and just needs addressing candidly and respectfully.
  • Pattern – It keeps happening.  You might feel like you are jumping to conclusions, but you will still want to deal with it candidly and respectfully before it becomes a relationship issue. People will often try and drag the conversation back to content as it feels safer here, but remember you can place a ‘bookmark’ if the conversation changes into something else that you really need to address.
  • Relationship – It keeps happening, and is now eroding trust, respect and leading you to doubt the persons competence.

Signs you are having the wrong conversation:

  • Your emotions escalate
  • You walk away sceptical
  • You experience déjà vu

Think about what you want from the conversation

  • What do you want for yourself?
  • What do you want for others?
  • What do you want for the relationship?
  • What do you act like you want?
  • What should you do right now to move towards what you really want?
  • What don’t you want?

Commit to seeking mutual purpose

Recognise why the other person wants a different path, and invent your mutual purpose by using the ‘CRIB’ technique:

  • Commit – To seeking mutual purpose. Try and find something you are both aligned on achieving together e.g. ‘I am willing to commit to this until we can find something that works for us both’.
  • Recognise – Why the other person wants a different path. If it looks like you have different opinions on the issue, aim to understand each other’s point of view. 
  • Invent – Your mutual purpose. We definitely don’t want to create winners and losers, working well together in the long term is what really counts and you don’t want to drive a wedge in that relationship. 
  • Brainstorm – The how. Discuss ideas on how you might be able to get what you both want.

Create a safe environment for the conversation

When you don’t feel safe emotions can take over, making people become defensive and they may misunderstand your intent. You must develop a mutual purpose and show mutual respect.

Signs that the conversation is becoming emotional can be:

  • Silence – Understating or selectively showing opinions e.g. I think it’s a great idea but I am not sure the department will appreciate it.
  • Avoiding – Steering the conversation away from sensitive subjects.
  • Withdrawing – Pulling out of the conversation all together.
  • Controlling – Forcing your views onto others, dominating, interrupting, speaking in absolutes.
  • Labelling – Putting a label on people or ideas to dismiss them under the general stereotype.
  • Attacking – Directly using belittling or threatening behaviour.

To keep the discussion in a safe space:

  • Share your good intent
  • Apologize when appropriate
  • Contrast to fix misunderstanding
  • Create mutual purpose

Ultimately, we need to say what we need to say

Share ideas as to how you might be able to get what you both want by using the ‘STATE’ technique:

  • Share your facts
  • Tell your story
  • Ask for the others path
  • Talk tentatively
  • Encourage testing

Facts form the foundation of a conversation. It is important to remember though, that these are YOUR facts, and you are telling your story based on your facts e.g. Your staff member is repeatedly not doing what you have asked.  You have stated that they did this on occasion a and b and c. Having seen this a few times now, you are starting to wonder why you are doing this and that maybe you don’t trust your judgement and it makes you think they don’t respect you.

You must ask for the other persons view, as well as sharing your perspective and explaining how you see the situation. You must explain that this is your story, not hard fact and restate your purpose, and that you would really like them to share their view.

However, don’t be tempted to water down what you need to share, remember to find out if there are underlying reasons to the issues raised.

Recognise when your beliefs are not helping you

If you find yourself disagreeing with the other persons view, try the ‘ABC’ method:

  • Agree – Find out what you do agree on, perhaps this is your mutual purpose?
  • Build on this – State a point that you agree on, then add your ideas to expend on the point.
  • Compare – Try a tentative but candid opening e.g. ‘I see things differently, let me describe how’ or ‘I come at this from a different perspective, can I share that with you?’.

Stay in control of YOU

You can only control how you handle the situation, but there are ways your behaviour can create a more positive environment for the discussion.

  • Collect yourself – Remember that this situation won’t actually hurt you.
  • Understand – Be understanding, being curious takes control of your adrenaline – why would a reasonable, rational, decent person say what he or she is saying?
  • Recover – Buy yourself some time, maybe a break to reflect? But agree to come back to the conversation.
  • Engage – Look for truth rather than defensively poking holes, and if appropriate come back at a later stage to explain how you are acting on what’s been said. 

Create actions to take away from the discussion

  • Who is involved
  • What actions need to be taken
  • When these actions need to be completed by
  • How you follow up on this

To conclude, handling difficult conversations at work requires a strategic approach centred on empathy and professionalism. It’s essential to prepare by outlining specific points you want to address and considering the other person’s perspective. Choose an appropriate time and setting for the conversation, ensuring privacy and minimal interruptions. Start by expressing your concern or perspective using non-confrontational language and active listening skills to understand their viewpoint. Maintain a calm and respectful tone throughout the discussion, focusing on facts rather than emotions. Encourage open dialogue and seek mutually agreeable solutions while being ready to compromise if needed. Acknowledge emotions and offer support where appropriate, ensuring a follow-up plan or action steps to address the issue positively. After the conversation, reflect on the discussion to learn from the experience and reinforce a constructive work environment based on understanding and respect.

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