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Awkward Conversations

Many managers, including me, procrastinate when faced with a difficult conversation. The end result is that it becomes even more awkward, the longer it is left.
I have found that long delays have all sorts of potential results, eg:
  • the situation improves on the surface, so the impact of the conversation is lost, and the learning opportunity is gone or
  • the frustration builds and the problem grows and the situation spirals out of control and causes real problems
While allowing a problem to resolve naturally is sometimes a good thing, if it hides an underlying weakness or prejudice or poor process, it will just re-occur and might be seriously damaging.

So how do you manage those difficult conversations?

  • Appoint a facilitator (line manager or HR official)
  • Create a safe, quiet space for the meeting.
  • Agree whether it is going to be formally documented or not
  • Agree on a preferred outcome before you start the conversation, even if it is just to have another meeting
  • Set firm ground rules that everybody agrees with before you start eg no swearing, no shouting, no "you always", or whatever is appropriate in your environment
  • Ensure the facilitator has the authority to ensure the rules don't get broken
  • The facilitator needs to be comfortable asking tough questions, while remaining objective
  • Steer the conversation toward facts, not opinions and assumptions
  • Allow a definite time for the conversation, rather than going with the "we are not leaving this room until the matter is resolved" approach
  • Conclude the meeting with a clear action plan that is deadline driven.
  • Follow up

Awkward conversations do occur and form part of the natural order of events within a workplace. People are all different and we all have our own ways of dealing with pressure. Effective management is a matter of enabling colleagues to sort out any problems without interference and only step in when the communication threatens to destabilise or upset balance within the business.

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