Difficult conversations

It’s normal to feel anxious, angry, or even frustrated about having difficult conversations. The key is to work out whether you need to have this conversation or not, and then decide “who do I want to be” during the discussions.  Are you willing to experience some discomfort to try and get a positive outcome?

Not many people like having difficult conversations. Often we can feel uncomfortable about broaching sensitive topics as we don't know how others might react. Emotions vary for everyone involved. That’s the tricky thing about emotions and feelings, they may be difficult in the moment but they are there because they let us know we care about something or that something is important.  

At chnnl we encourage our team to hold difficult conversations earlier rather than later, it’s not always easy but we’ve found following some simple guidelines when embarking on a difficult conversation can help strengthen relationships, not break them. It’s about how you show up in the conversation, holding it with respect and going in with the right intentions. In the words of the chnnl psychologists “you are more likely to be remembered for how someone else felt, than exactly what words you used”.

Here is our four step guide for difficult conversations:

  1. Preparation
  2. Set-up
  3. Action - Hold the conversation
  4. Follow through

Step 1: Preparation

Ask yourself, am I the best person to have this conversation? It’s ok for the answer to be no! Recognising when you are not the right person to hold a conversation is as important as stepping in when you are the right person.

Some questions to ask yourself:

  • Are you able to be assertive and move the conversation where it needs to go?
  • Does HR expect you to have this conversation?
  • Do you have access to experts in this area?
  • Should someone unbiased and trained be part of this process?
  • Have I consulted business policy or procedure documents related to this issue?

Consider any background factors. It’s important to consider the role of empathy here - seek to understand how the employee might be feeling but don’t go so far as to feel what they are feeling as this can heighten the emotional aspects of the conversation.

  • Career progression concerns (promotion/demotion)
  • Recent known conflict/injury/health
  • Media reports on concurrent issues
  • Time spent with organisation (both yourself and employee)
  • Potential gaps in knowledge (both yourself and employee) e.g. union matters, HR and legal requirements
  • Non-work factors

Step 2: Set up

1. Choose an environment appropriate for the conversation - ensure you have a private space where you won’t be interrupted and sufficient time for the conversation. Try to avoid having another meeting booked directly afterwards.

2. Consider the conversation timing - Consider the best time of day to have the conversation - are you at your best early in the morning or late in the afternoon, how about the person you are talking with? Try to avoid key conversations occurring on a Friday or early Monday as this will weigh on the person over the weekend

Some conversations could be intense so ask the question ‘are you ready for the conversation now or would you like to reschedule for another time?’

Be clear on what success looks like for the meeting. Set a clear meeting agenda  - don’t put it in the meeting invite as these are often public, email it and refer to the email. Be sure to ask whether they want someone with them for support.

Step 3: Hold the conversation

Be present - there’s nothing worse than having half of someone’s attention.

  1. Listen well
  2. Turn your distractions such as your phone and computer screen  
  3. If sitting behind a desk, consider moving to a place without the barrier between you
  4. Let them speak and try to understand the core issue and feelings
  5. Give space in the conversation and allow silences.

Take any concerns raised by the individual seriously

To ensure they feel heard, regularly repeat or summarise back a brief summary of what they are saying. Also, try and use their words where possible. Let them know that what they’re telling you is helpful to know. Example:  

“So you feel that Mike is bullying you and making you “feel uncomfortable”. Am I right that you feel this way because he parks in your allocated car park, you heard him tell HR that you are incompetent, and he has told you that he will get you fired?”

If an issue such as abuse or harassment is raised, what should you do?

  • Follow business policy or procedure documents related to this issue
  • Obtain additional supports where needed for your own decision making (e.g., supervision or consultation)
  • Protect all the people involved (including both sides of the complaint, support people and witnesses) from victimisation (eg being punished, bullied, intimidated).
  • Support the people involved - anyone involved can have a support person present at interviews or meetings (eg in-house support person, their union delegate, colleague, friend, legal representative).
  • Tell all appropriate parties involved what support and representation is available to them (eg do you have an employee assistance programme, or other trained people who can provide ongoing care and support?)

Next steps

Ask what they think should happen next and what they would like you to do about it (empower their perspective). Their perspective may not necessarily be the best response, but it is important to understand and validate. Come to a shared understanding of next steps and clearly communicate the process and what you can/can’t do.

Where possible, have the individual be part of the planning process for next steps. Document agreed next steps and anticipated time frames and let the people involved know if there are delays to timelines.

Step 4: Afterwards

Act promptly

  • Set timelines and deal with issues as soon as you become aware of them
  • Carefully and clearly consider all response options
  • Act according to your company guidelines and ethical considerations

Maintain confidentiality

  • Ensure details of the matter are only known to those directly concerned (including their representative or support person) and those involved in investigating and considering the reported behaviour.
  • The individual needs to know who else has to be involved in the resolution process, and what information will and won't be passed on.  

Keep good documentation

  • Ensure actions and decisions are documented.
  • Keep all information in a secure and confidential space where access is restricted (e.g. cleaners cannot access it easily).

Not every difficult conversation will go well, but it is always better to hold the conversation than to avoid it. For leaders sometimes the best thing you can do is to hold a difficult conversation for the good of the individual and the team. Be sure to look after yourself in the process!

Information and resources provided by chnnl is general in nature. It may not be relevant to individual circumstances, is intended as a support tool only and should not be relied on as a substitute for professional medical advice. If you have specific questions or concerns please seek advice from a qualified professional.