Case Study Difficult Conversations Review

Handling difficult conversations

Many managers find it difficult to provide negative feedback – to criticize their subordinates – especially in a formal or semi-formal meeting. They worry in case the employee reacts badly and an unpleasant situation arises.

Minimizing the problem

This problem can be minimized if the steps given below are followed by managers before and during a feedback or review meeting:

  1. Keep in touch with the members of their team. If they see that managers are approachable and ready to listen they are more likely to come to you with their problems. It is far better to nip the problems in the bud, wherever possible, rather than waiting for them to become more entrenched or complicated.
  2. Get to know each individual in order to anticipate possible behaviour.
  3. Do not wait until a formal review meeting. They should have a quiet word at the first sign something is going wrong.
  4. If they have to hold a formal meeting, get the facts in advance – what happened, when and why?
  5. Plan the meeting on the basis of the facts and what they know about the individual. Define what they want to achieve.
  6. Set the right tone from the start of the meeting – adopt a calm, measured, deliberate but friendly approach.
  7. Begin the conversation by explaining the purpose and structure of the meeting, indicating to the individual what the issue is, using their knowledge of the situation and giving specific examples.
  8. Focus on the issue and not the person.
  9. Ask for an explanation. Ask unloaded questions to clarify the issues and explore them together.
  10. Listen to what the individual has to say – he or she may need to let off steam.
  11. Keep an open mind and don’t jump to conclusions.
  12. Acknowledge the individual’s position and any mitigating circumstances.
  13. If new evidence emerges, adjourn the meeting if this feels appropriate.
  14. Ask the employee for proposals to resolve the situation, discuss the options and if possible agree on action by the individual, the manager or jointly.
  15. If agreement cannot be reached, managers may have to define the way forward, with reasons – they are in charge!


Dealing with difficult situations

With the best will in the world you may get a negative reaction from an individual – ranging from sullen silence to open hostility, even rage. To deal with this sort of difficult situation managers should adopt the approach set out below.

  1. Maintain control of the meeting.
  2. Put clear boundaries in place and ensure that the conversation keeps within them.
  3. Remain calm at all times – never respond to anger with anger.
  4. Use questioning techniques to clarify the facts.
  5. Be firm and restate their position as necessary.
  6. Decide what tactics are working and if they need to change their approach. Know when to expand a conversation by seeking clarification and gaining understanding and when to restrict it.
  7. Decide if and when they need to adjourn for a break to allow either party to consider their position or to cool things down.
  8. Stay clear of emotive language and don’t respond to manipulative behaviour.
  9. Allow people to have their say and listen to them, but make it clear that rudeness or any other form of unacceptable behaviour will not be tolerated. Terminate the meeting before things get out of hand.
  10. If, in spite of the facts, the individual is in denial, restate the evidence, indicate what happens next (possibly another meeting after a cooling off period) and close the meeting.

About the author:  

Michael Armstrong is the UK's bestselling author of Human Resource Management books including Armstrong's Handbook of Human Resource Management Practice, Armstrong's Handbook of Performance Management, Armstrong's Job Evaluation Handbook and several other titles published by Kogan Page. His books have sold over a million copies and have been translated into twenty-one languages. Michael Armstrong is a Companion and former Chief Examiner of the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD), a managing partner of E-Reward and an independent management consultant. Prior to this he was an HR director of a publishing compan


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March 25, 2013

We all have an inner voice that tells us when we need to have a difficult conversation with someone—a conversation that, if it took place, would improve life at the office for ourselves and for everyone else on our team. But fear drowns that inner voice—and we put the conversation off. Meanwhile the offending individual continues to provide substandard performance, miss deadlines, engage in interpersonal conflicts and exhibit toxic behavior.

The consequence of not having that uncomfortable conversation is costly. A CPP Inc. study of workplace conflict reveals that employees in the U.S. spend roughly 2.8 hours per week dealing with conflict. Thirty-three percent of employees report that the conflict led to personal injury and attacks, and 22 percent report that it led to illness and absence from work. Ten percent report that project failure was a direct result of conflict. A similar study by Psychometrics in Canada, showed that 32 percent of employees have to deal with conflict regularly. More alarming is a recent study by Accenture revealing that, even in this challenging economic climate, 35 percent of employees leave their jobs voluntarily because of internal politics.

Handling the difficult conversation requires skill and empathy, but ultimately, it requires the courage to go ahead and do it. The more you get into the habit of facing these issues squarely, the more adept you will become at it. If you're unsure of how to best approach a crucial conversation, here are some tips to guide you:

1. Be clear about the issue.

To prepare for the conversation, you need to ask yourself two important questions: "What exactly is the behavior that is causing the problem?" and "What is the impact that the behavior is having on you, the team or the organization?" You need to reach clarity for yourself so you can articulate the issue in two or three succinct statements. If not, you risk going off on a tangent during the conversation. The lack of focus on the central issue will derail the conversation and sabotage your intentions.

2. Know your objective.

What do you want to accomplish with the conversation? What is the desired outcome? What are the non-negotiables? As English philosopher Theodore Zeldin put it: A successful conversation "doesn't just reshuffle the cards: it creates new cards." What are the new cards that you want to have in your hands by the end of the conversation? Once you have determined this, plan how you will close the conversation. Don't end without clearly expressed action items. What is the person agreeing to do? What support are you committed to provide? What obstacles might prevent these remedial actions from taking place? What do you both agree to do to overcome potential obstacles? Schedule a follow up to evaluate progress and definitively reach closure on the issue at hand.

3. Adopt a mindset of inquiry.

Spend a little time to reflect on your attitude toward the situation and the person involved. What are your preconceived notions about it? Your mindset will predetermine your reaction and interpretations of the other person's responses, so it pays to approach such a conversation with the right mindset—which in this context is one of inquiry. A good doctor diagnoses a situation before reaching for his prescription pad. This applies equally to a leader. Be open to hear first what the other person has to say before reaching closure in your mind. Even if the evidence is so clear that there is no reason to beat around the bush, we still owe it to the person to let them tell their story. A good leader remains open and seeks a greater truth in any situation. The outcome of adopting this approach might surprise you.

RELATED: 10 Perfect Phrases to Resolve Any Conflict

4. Manage the emotions.

Most of us were likely raised to believe that emotions need to be left at the door. We now know that this is an old-school approach that is no longer valid in today's work environments. It is your responsibility as a leader to understand and manage the emotions in the discussion. The late Robert Plutchik, professor at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, created a Wheel of Emotions to show that emotions follow a path. What starts as an annoyance, for example, can move to anger and, in extreme cases, escalate to rage. We can avoid this by being mindful of preserving the person's dignity—and treating them with respect—even if we totally disagree with them.

In some cases, you may have to respond to a person's tears. In the video "How To Handle Tears At Work," Anne Kreamer, author of It's Always Personal: Navigating Emotion in the New Workplace, provides several strategies. These include acknowledging the tears rather than ignoring them, offering the person a tissue to provide an opportunity to gather his or her thoughts, and recognizing that the tears communicate a problem to be addressed.

5. Be comfortable with silence.

There will be moments in the conversation where a silence occurs. Don't rush to fill it with words. Just as the pause between musical notes helps us appreciate the music, so the periodic silence in the conversation allows us to hear what was said and lets the message sink in. A pause also has a calming effect and can help us connect better. For example, if you are an extrovert, you're likely uncomfortable with silence, as you're used to thinking while you're speaking. This can be perceived as steamrolling or overbearing, especially if the other party is an introvert. Introverts want to think before they speak. Stop talking and allow them their moment—it can lead to a better outcome.   

6. Preserve the relationship.

A leader who has high emotional intelligence is always mindful to limit any collateral damage to a relationship. It takes years to build bridges with people and only minutes to blow them up. Think about how the conversation can fix the situation, without erecting an irreparable wall between you and the person. 

7. Be consistent.

Ensure that your objective is fair and that you are using a consistent approach. For example, if the person thinks you have one set of rules for this person and a different set for another, you'll be perceived as showing favoritism. Nothing erodes a relationship faster than perceived inequality. Employees have long-term memories of how you handled situations in the past. Aim for consistency in your leadership approach. We trust a leader who is consistent because we don't have to second-guess where they stand on important issues such as culture, corporate values and acceptable behaviors.

8. Develop your conflict resolution skills.

Conflict is a natural part of human interaction. Managing conflict effectively is one of the vital skills of leadership. Have a few, proven phrases that can come in handy in crucial spots.

RELATED: No Batteries Required—8 Conflict Resolution Tips

9. Watch your reaction to thwarting ploys.

In a Harvard Business Reviewarticle, Sarah Green lists nine common mistakes we make when we conduct a difficult conversation. One of these mistakes is how we handle thwarting ploys, such as stonewalling, sarcasm and accusing. The best advice is to simply address the ploy openly and sincerely. As the author says, if the ploy from your counterpart is stubborn unresponsiveness, you can candidly say, "I don't know how to interpret your silence." Disarm the ploy by labeling the observed behavior.

10. Choose the right place to have the conversation.

Calling people into your office may not be the best strategy. Sitting in your own turf, behind your desk, shifts the balance of power too much on your side. Even simple body language, such as leaning forward toward the person rather than leaning back on your chair, can carry a subtle message of your positive intentions; i.e., "We're in this together. Let's problem solve so that we have a better workplace." Consider holding the meeting in a neutral place such as a meeting room where you can sit adjacent to each other without the desk as a barrier. Don't exclude the coffee shop.

11. Know how to begin.

Some people put off having the conversation because they don't know how to start. The best way to start is with a direct approach. "John, I would like to talk with you about what happened at the meeting this morning when Bob asked about the missed deadline. Let's grab a cup of coffee tomorrow morning to chat." Or: "Linda, I want to go over some of the issues with XYZ customer and some concerns that I have. Let's meet tomorrow morning to problem-solve."

Being upfront is the authentic and respectful approach. You don't want to ambush people by surprising them about the nature of the "chat." Make sure your tone of voice signals discussion and not inquisition, exploration and not punishment.

12. Train other leaders on how to handle the difficult conversation.

There are dozens of good books written on this crucial topic, such as Difficult Conversations: How To Discuss What Matters Most and Crucial Conversations: Tools For Talking When Stakes Are High. Pick up two or three copies for your corporate library and encourage leaders in your organization to develop this important skill.

Read more articles, tips and advice on how to be an effective leader.

Photo: iStockphoto

Bruna Martinuzzi is the founder of Clarion Enterprises Ltd., and the author of two books: Presenting with Credibility: Practical Tools and Techniques for Effective Presentations and The Leader as a Mensch: Become the Kind of Person Others Want to Follow.

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