Why leaders need to tackle difficult conversations with a human-centric approach

One of your direct reports sends emails that almost always contain spelling or grammatical errors. It’s clear that he doesn’t take the time to review what he wrote before hitting send. As a result, his communication comes across as unprofessional—but is it worth saying something and risking your otherwise good relationship with him? Sometimes, it seems easier to avoid the issue altogether. 

Whether you’re providing feedback, communicating a change in job responsibilities, or conducting a performance review, difficult conversations in the workplace are unavoidable. They will occur in every team and across every service vertical. Avoiding them enables minor issues to fester into major problems; for most people, tackling them head-on can feel about as appealing as a trip to the dentist.

If you’re dreading the idea of having the difficult conversations that come with being a leader, you’re not alone—69% of managers are uncomfortable giving feedback. Often, the fear of hurting other people’s feelings or being disliked causes leaders and managers to shy away from having these direct conversations. The irony is that, when delivered effectively, people thrive on receiving feedback, be it positive or constructive. 

Why do leaders avoid difficult conversations?

While the name implies the challenge here, it’s worth looking at some common reasons leaders avoid difficult conversations:

  • They fear conflict.
  • They haven’t developed the necessary interpersonal skills to do it well.
  • They fear being disliked.
  • They fear being unkind.
  • They are too busy to prioritize these interactions.

The reality is that most people are not good at having difficult conversations at home, at work, and in other social settings; it’s a skill that requires training and practice. Avoiding these conversations altogether with direct reports can lead to a talented employee’s career going off the rails. As a leader, the inability to have difficult discussions limits your leadership potential. From a business perspective, employee engagement, performance, and trust will suffer if leaders are not able to have candid conversations with employees when they need to.

Six practices of leaders who have productive conversations

Leaders who are good at navigating sensitive situations do the following:

1. They don’t avoid difficult conversations.

Whatever you do, don’t ignore problems and performance issues that need to be addressed. A vital aspect of good leadership is the ability to develop your team (and yourself) through meaningful conversations that ultimately benefit the individual and the business. 

2. They’re clear about the purpose of the conversation.

It’s important to start any difficult conversation with absolute clarity about what you want to get out of it. Being intentional about your desired outcomes (even if they don’t manifest exactly as you plan) will help you redirect the conversation to its purpose and keep it constructive in its most difficult moments.

3. They practice active listening.

Once you have framed the conversation and stated your point, it’s time to take a step back and listen, which is key to improving your chances of an effective outcome. Listening provides an environment in which both people feel respected. Taking the time to listen to and consider the other person’s perspective will diffuse anger and lay a foundation for building trust. By understanding the situation together, you’ll be in a better place to make a positive change. 

Tips for better listening
– Give your undivided attention to the conversation
– Do more listening than talking
– Ask thoughtful questions for clarity and understanding
– Consider the other person’s responses without judgment
– Use non-verbal cues, like nodding and making eye contact
– Don’t give in to the temptation to react

4. They engage with empathy.

Effective, constructive engagements fall back on empathy. By putting yourself in someone else’s shoes, you are able to provide the holistic support that your employees need to perform at their best. People want to feel heard and understood, which means taking the time to consider their pain points, past experiences, and motivations. Taking an empathetic approach allows you to facilitate open communication and encourage thoughtful and productive conversations.

5. They embrace emotion.

When having a tough conversation with someone, come prepared for an emotional response. Much as you may dislike confrontation, there’s a high chance that the other person does too. Often, these difficult discussions are deeply rooted in personal experiences, which could lead to the other person becoming emotional. Rather than ignoring the response, it’s important to acknowledge and make room for emotions—many of which you could be feeling too!

6. They ask for feedback.

After having the conversation, don’t be afraid to acknowledge that it wasn’t easy for either party. Thank the employee for engaging with you, and ask if he has any feedback on how you could have handled the conversation better.

Ease difficult conversations with leadership training

Having respectful, direct (albeit difficult) conversations can make all the difference in individual and team satisfaction, performance, and productivity. On the other hand, choosing to ignore the issue leads to a breakdown in communication and trust. 

Equipping leaders to have effective, tough conversations is all about helping them develop interpersonal skills in context. But, for many leaders, these human-centric skills don’t always come naturally. The good news is that foundational interpersonal skills can be trained. Blueline’s realistic, interactive, and true-to-life immersive learning experiences help to prepare leaders to navigate difficult conversations in the new world of work. If your organization hasn’t yet tapped into the power of interpersonal skills training, there’s never been a better time to do so. Get in touch with the team to schedule a free consultation. 

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