Dealing with difficult workplace conversations

Andrew Brown looks at three ways managers can master difficult conversations with their employees

Difficult conversations in the workplace are unavoidable, particularly in high pressure situations or environments where customer satisfaction is called into question. But whether these conversations take place in an open-plan office, a boardroom or on the shop floor, it’s how we deal with them that impacts on whether we ultimately achieve the right outcome. 

How do you defuse a heated situation early on?

While getting your point across is obviously your main priority, it’s vitally important to listen carefully – to the point that you can demonstrate to the other party you’re engaging with what they are saying. You can do this by playing back their key points and summarising what they’ve said and how you perceive they feel. 

When making your argument or points, tone of voice is key. Be clear, calm and focus on your end result. Most importantly, keep it objective, not personal. And be prepared to alter your approach if the situation requires it. 

What is the best way to deal with a conversation that has no obvious resolution? 

If someone just wants to offload their grievances and vent, then it’s good to have a thick skin in this kind of situation (obviously that’s not the kind of attribute that can necessarily be taught). But if you’re simply not in a position to act, or not in a position of authority to do so, then you can still regain control of the situation to alleviate any possible tension. The easiest way to do this is by explaining who is best placed to deal with them and give the other person a ‘route map’ to resolution, outlining proposed timescales of follow on conversations, etc. 

A clinical approach to their upset should help defuse the rant and help to nip it in the bud.

In what circumstances is it useful to have a mediator or third party present?

Before considering whether you want to include a mediator or third party, it’s important to consider exactly what you want to achieve from their attendance and what role you envisage them playing in the process. It’s also worth thinking about how the suggestion of including a mediator will be received. The proposed mediator must be independent so make sure you’ve researched their background thoroughly. Consider the personalities involved and which mediator or third party has the most relevant experience and interpersonal skills to work with them.

Where facts are an issue, emotions are running high and/or there is a deadlock between the two sides, it can be useful to involve a third party. But the best mediators test the parties’ views in the private session and are meant to be facilitators – not judges.

If the mediator or third party isn’t adding value to the process, don’t be frightened to ditch them.

Points to note

The devil is in the detail, so make sure you’ve prepared sufficient information, and supporting material if the situation requires, to plan the structure of what issues you need to cover within a conversation that you know could lean towards being difficult. Remember, you’re working towards a solution to a problem, and that needs to be at the crux of any tricky conversation.

These types of discussions tend to stray off piste, but with preparation and key points to follow, you should ensure the conversation remains on track and everyone remains focused on the subject at hand.   

Finally, timing and location are key. Avoid public spaces and don’t arrange a meeting just before a deadline. Allow sufficient time and ensure privacy is available.

Andrew Brown is a dispute resolution partner at Capital Law