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conflict resolution | HR Off-Site

12 Ways to Tackle Difficult Conversations

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As a business owner or manager, there are times when you need to have a conversation with an employee that you don’t want to have. The topic might be awkward, such as body odour, gossip and poor timekeeping, or a game changer such as unsafe work habits and performance gaps. The cost of avoiding these difficult conversations and leaving these situations unresolved is likely higher than you think. If you’re noticing the problem, chances are other employees and perhaps even your customers are noticing it as well.

According to a 2008 study conducted by the executive development firm CPP Inc., workplace conflict is a nearly universal occurrence, with 85% of all workers spending more than two hours per week dealing with conflict. What does this mean to your business? In financial terms, if you have 24 employees, 20 of them claim to spend at least two hours a week dealing with conflict. That’s 40 hours per week or 2080 hours per year! You’d have to hire one more full-time person just to make up for the productivity lost due to conflict. Given the fact that workplace conflict can also lead to stress, illness, absence from work, harassment, violence, labour complaints and failed plan execution, what is it doing to your customers, your profits and your company as a whole?

One of the keys to preventing and reducing workplace conflict is to deal with situations when you first become aware of them. Taking immediate action often is enough to change an outcome, show leadership and create positive and lasting results. Waiting until the problem is so big that it has to be dealt under unfavourable conditions, such as in response to a complaint or when an accident occurs, puts you at a real disadvantage. By then, you may have become emotionally charged, perhaps full of frustration or anger. In this case, risk is increased and the chances of a positive outcome are reduced.

It doesn’t really matter why we tend to avoid having the conversations we most need to have. The real issue is how to deal with the difficult issues with the least amount of pain. Here are 12 tips for tackling difficult conversations:

  1. Deal with the matter as soon as you become aware of it.
  2. If the topic is sensitive or emotionally charged, prepare the person in advance by letting them know that a meeting is planned and what you will be talking about.
  3. Be gentle. No one likes to be scolded, so be professional and keep your composure.
  4. Be sure to ask questions to clarify the facts of the situation, unless you have first-hand knowledge.
  5. Listen carefully and hold your judgements until you understand all angles of the situation.
  6. Be as direct as possible while using empathy to engage the other person.
  7. Steer clear of small talk. It can minimize the importance of the conversation.
  8. Stay on target and discuss only the matter at hand. Dragging up old gripes and grumbles will divert you from the purpose of the conversation. If the employee brings up other matters, consider scheduling a separate meeting to address those issues.
  9. Share with the employee why the matter is important to you and the business, and what effect their behaviour is having on other employees and customers, as well as the potential employment impact.
  10. Clearly state your expectations. Be specific about what you the person to start or stop doing.
  11. Document the meeting, have the employee acknowledge the content and and provide a copy for their records.
  12. Follow up. This is an important, often overlooked step. It’s tempting to think, “Whew… I’m glad that’s done with,” but you likely won’t know if your expectations have been met until some time has passed and you’ve asked for feedback from the employee and others.

Even in workplaces that boldly encourage engagement, difficult conversations are often avoided. This works to everyone’s detriment. Do yourself and your company a favour and create an environment of early conversation, before difficult enters the equation.