5 Ways to Handle Difficult Conversations and Minimize Conflict and Tension

Holding employees accountable is without a doubt the single most important skill that a manager can have and, unfortunately, this is typically the one area that most managers struggle with.

Inspecting what we expect and consistently letting your team know that you are actively watching their performance and conduct, and will not hesitate to address areas of concern is what differentiates managers that are sub-par and great leaders.

Study after study shows that diving into difficult conversations is the top task that managers avoid, and very few actually claim to be comfortable with it. Given that from childhood on, our associations with conflict are often negative, it is natural for managers to brush conflict under the rug instead of dealing with it.

By avoiding these situations, problems invariably tend to worsen. With conflict brewing just under the surface, there will come a time when things erupt and cause more damage than necessary. A recent study showed that workplace conflicts take up nearly three hours every week, resulting in losses of $359 billion per year.

So, whether you’re looking to diffuse a tense situation, deliver a difficult message, confront insensitive behavior, or give tough performance feedback, developing the right approach toward conflict management is essential.

Here are five expert tips that will help you address and resolve conflict at work.

1.  Outline the purpose of the conversation

When you must approach a difficult conversation, take the time out to first articulate the reason behind the conversation and what outcome you hope to achieve. The answers to these questions will form the foundation of the discussion and can help with conflict resolution.

In some cases, the outcome might be non-negotiable, such as theft or a clear breach against HR policies; in other cases, the outcome can be more flexible and achieved through negotiation.

2.  Choose the right approach

Whenever possible, have difficult conversations live or, at the very least, on a video call. Taking the easy way out via email is the mark of a weak manager.

Most discussions and negotiations aim to achieve a mutual goal through a mature and collaborative exchange of information and viewpoints. When it comes to difficult conversations, you may have to take a more assertive stance than usual, which might be out of your comfort zone. Always refer to organizational policies on matters related to discipline and grievances in these cases.

In today’s litigious environment, it is critically important to get HR involved when appropriate and be fastidious in documenting everything.

3.  Identify and manage your emotional state

Difficult conversations are often uncomfortable and stressful for both parties, which can elicit emotional responses. Regardless of how long you have been in a leadership role, there is the rare person that does not experience an elevated pulse and a bit of anxiety when preparing for a discussion that involves addressing a sensitive subject.  Understanding your emotional state can help you keep personal bias aside, allowing you to view the situation objectively. Displaying self-control will likely encourage the other person to do the same too.

Here are three things to keep in mind:

A) Acknowledge how you feel about approaching the topic

Recognize that addressing a difficult topic will in all likelihood make you feel uncomfortable, but you should view it as an important part of your responsibilities as a manager. Start the conversation and be prepared to handle any outbursts calmly. In most cases, the responses will not be aimed at you personally, but are defensive in nature.

B) How you feel about the issue itself

If the issue being discussed is something you personally feel strongly about, don’t allow your personal feelings to affect how you deal with it. Adopt a balanced and consistent approach where subjective feelings play a minimal role in the outcome.

C) How you feel about the person involved

If you have a good relationship with the person, you might be tempted to show leniency or ‘soften the blow’ to spare their feelings. In the same way, if the person is someone you dislike, don’t let feelings of anger or frustration cloud your judgment regarding the matter. Once again, exhibit professional behavior and put your prejudices aside when having difficult conversations.

4.  Plan the exchange

Before you start the discussion, take the time to learn about the situation as much as possible. Keep relevant reports and information handy, so they can be quickly accessed during the conversation as needed. Take the time to prepare how you’ll discuss the subject and avoid using language that might agitate the other person.

It cannot be stressed enough how extremely important it is to be willing to actively listen and empathize with the other person’s side of the story.

5. Know the desired outcome at the beginning of the conversation

No manager should ever go into a disciplinary meeting without having a clear plan in place regarding the outcome. If you are already at the severance stage, a discussion sharing that information should not be negotiable.

Assuming your employee is not at the point of termination, you should grant leeway depending on how the employee reacts, allowing you can to choose to move forward with increased disciplinary actions ranging from an action plan to termination, depending on the reaction of your employee.

If someone acknowledges your concerns and seems genuinely open to feedback and constructive criticism, it is often wise to allow both them and you to explore the possibility of improvement. However, if someone is defensive and unable to address your concerns in a constructive manner, the best course of action is termination.

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Ann Zaslow-Rethaber is President of International Search Consultants and can be reached at 888-866-7276 or .

Kara Onorato ISC’s Director of Recruiting and can be reached at 877-316-6249 or .