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Alan Price



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Rip the band aid off: Have that difficult conversation

Nobody enjoys awkward conversations, but burying your head in the sand could be harming your workplace and your relationships. Here are some ways to navigate those difficult discussions.
person in brown long sleeve shirt covering face with hand, avoiding difficult conversations

We’re faced with an awkward or uncomfortable conversation at work, but we can’t quite seem to gather either the words or the courage to approach it. We’ve all been there.

In fact, according to a poll, 80% of workers fear those work conversations, putting them off for as long as they can.

But burying your head in the sand doesn’t make things better. In fact, it could be hurting your relationships, or even make the situation worse. 

So, it’s much better to rip the band aid off and tackle it head-on. 

Here are some ways to navigate those difficult conversations, keeping your relationships intact and minimising awkwardness with your colleagues or employees.

Burying your head in the sand doesn’t make things better

Conversation preparation

Picture this: you arrived on Monday and learned that someone on your team has been making derogatory comments about a colleague online. 

Not the greatest start to your week. So, what steps need to be taken to ensure the problem is resolved swiftly and delicately?

Firstly, schedule the meeting for a suitable time, giving yourself plenty of leeway. The conversation shouldn’t be rushed, and these conversations tend to run over. 

Give the employee time to prepare, so they don’t feel like you’ve devised an elaborate ambush for them.

Location, location, location

Choose a suitable location. Ideally somewhere private, and away from distractions. Use your discretion to decide on whether a face-to-face is needed for WFH employees. 

Set the tone

Ask yourself whether the situation requires an informal or formal tone and act accordingly. 

There’s probably no need to bring the whole HR department to a meeting about a missing tuna sandwich from the company fridge.

More formal meetings tend to require a formal written invitation, a right to accompaniment for the employee, and strict adherence to company procedures. 

Be impartial and listen to both sides of the story

Do your homework

Investigate and fact-find so that you can go into the meeting well-informed. Doing your investigation helps to keep impartiality and professionalism. 

Plus, involve the right people. Does the employee feel comfortable? Would they like to be accompanied? Which manager is overseeing the issue, and are they the right person to talk to? 

All these things need to be considered before the meeting takes place.

Listen before you respond  

Once in the meeting, you need to keep an open mind. Be impartial and listen to both sides of the story, especially if there is a conflict between two parties. Your goal should always be to resolve the problem. 

Be mindful of your tone of voice and try not to sound accusatory. 

This isn’t an episode of Judge Judy, so be sensitive to everyone’s heightened emotions in the situation. 

You want everyone to feel comfortable and open in the meeting so a resolution can be reached quickly. 

Try to allow regular breaks from the meeting if emotions begin to flare and keep notes of the conversation. Trust me, logs of the meeting will come in handy in the next step.

Create a plan of resolution for after the meeting

The goal of any meeting like this is to come up with a solution to the problem at hand. 

That solution is up to your discretion but remember that you can always schedule follow-up meetings to discuss progress or check in with the employee. Create an action plan – and stick to it!

Keeping notes and logs is therefore a great way to make sure you stick to the plan. It can also help to put your employee’s mind at ease that their concerns and needs are being met beyond just one meeting. 

Be risk aware

Despite the best-laid plans, sometimes things go wrong. It’s important to know the risks if you mess up, to deter any potential issues from occurring in the first place.

Poor management of these situations can result in a negative or toxic workplace environment. Spinning out of control and dragging more people into its orbit like a bad sci-fi flick. 

Even when you approach the conversation fairly and follow the right process, your employee may still be upset. This can lead to the employee becoming disengaged, and decreased productivity. 

Or, in the worst cases, resignation, and we all know how costly recruitment can be to our business! 

It’s good to mentally prepare yourself that this is a possible outcome but try your best to resolve the conflict before it escalates. 

It's also important to remember that people talk. Especially on social media. And one negative experience can quickly spread like wildfire and permanently damage the reputation of the whole business. 

Poor management of these situations can result in a negative or toxic workplace environment

Key takeaways

There’s no getting away from it, navigating those difficult conversations with employees is challenging and awkward. 

But with the correct training and approach, your managers should be able to handle them with confidence. 

Put the correct policies in place, and clearly communicate them to employees to help set expectations, boundaries and prevent potential issues from arising in the first place.

If there’s one thing to take away from this article, it’s to act fast. While careful preparation is key, time is of the essence to ensure the issue doesn’t escalate and spread, affecting more employees and hurting morale.

If you enjoyed this, read: Reckoning with language: Embracing candid DEI conversations

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