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How to have difficult conversations with staff

People Management

How to have difficult conversations with staff

Updated: 19 October 2021

When you’re running a small business, there are some conversations that just need to be had. Though it may be uncomfortable in the short term, having these open and frank discussions can be the key to better business performance and efficiency. But how do you go about giving feedback in a way that’s well-received, and keeps your relationships with your staff intact? Find our tips for landing your message and giving constructive feedback below.

Plan your approach

First things first, planning is everything. If you want to ensure the conversation stays productive, it’s best to plan out what you want to say and how you want to say it before you head in. Going in all guns blazing will likely put your employee on the defensive; not being firm enough could result in them not taking it seriously.

Consider the message you need to deliver and anticipate how they may react. Prepare for any questions they might ask by having the answers already thought out. You’ll then be able to stay well tempered, not get flustered and communicate your critique in a way that will be better received.

Find a safe space to have the discussion

To have a productive conversation, make the other person feel comfortable. Where you have the discussion can be just as important as the discussion itself. Some people might feel awkward getting negative feedback in a crowded office space, so having a secluded area where you can talk openly and frankly is key.

You’ll also want to check with your staff member that they’re comfortable in the space where you’re conducting the meeting, before you begin the conversation — this makes them feel like their feelings are considered, so the conversation doesn’t start off on the wrong foot.

Use clear language

The language you use is just as important as the message you’re trying to convey. For the best results, stick to clear language that can’t be misinterpreted. Remove personal feelings, assumptions and preconceptions and focus on the facts in front of you.

Referring to your own feelings can often put the employee on the defensive. Instead, outline the facts and ask questions. Encourage them to think about their approach and how they could do things differently. If they can reach the right conclusion themselves, it will be much more effective. People tend to adopt better habits when they come to the realisation on their own, and this approach allows them to return to work with renewed motivation, instead of feeling like they’ve been told off.

Ask and allow questions

Questions are absolutely essential in turning a difficult discussion into a productive one — and they go both ways. Prepare the questions you’d like to ask before the meeting to avoid getting flustered, and try to use open-ended questions as opposed to ones with yes or no answers, which will stifle the flow of the conversation.

Equally, be prepared to be open and answer any questions your employee has. Think proactively before the meeting about the potential questions that might arise and plan your answers. This will help you to lead the conversation, without being blind-sided by unexpected responses.

Present solutions

Productive conversations are all about finding solutions, so don’t shy away from sharing your opinions about how they, or even you, can solve a particular issue. If, for instance, the conversation is to do with your employee being resistant to change, you could say something like, “I know you feel X. What about if you tried Y? This would enable Z.” By taking this approach, you acknowledge their point of view as well as providing a route forward. Your employee will be more receptive as a result.

Asking questions to help prompt them to come up with a solution that works for them can also be beneficial too. By giving them the power to propose their own way forward, it’ll be much easier to carry out and stick to. Their solution might make your operations more efficient, and they might have a viewpoint that you hadn’t considered, so it pays to be open and receptive.

Keep your emotions in check

We’re all human and it’s difficult to keep our emotions out of things — particularly when we have our own preconceived assumptions about someone’s motivations. However, in order to keep things productive, it’s vital that you leave your emotions at the door and remain professional. Not allowing your emotions to dictate your delivery allows you to lead the conversation, and makes it more likely you’ll reach the resolution you’re looking for.

In order to do this, you need to take a step back and remove your relationship with this person from the equation. Focus on the situation from a purely fact-based standpoint. And if you do feel your emotions are getting the better of you, remind yourself that if you can maintain control of your emotions, you’re much more likely to deliver the message you’re trying to get across.

Be empathetic

While you need to keep your personal feelings and assumptions out of the conversation, this doesn’t mean that you can’t empathise with your employee. In fact, empathy could be just the ticket in motivating them to try even harder.

Put yourself in the shoes of the person receiving your feedback. Give them enough time for them to process their thoughts and feelings. Don’t continue to push if you can see them struggling to digest the points you’ve raised — let them pause to collect themselves before you continue the conversation. Make sure to clearly outline why the conversation is taking place so that they can understand your perspective. 

If you can see they’re taking the conversation to heart, gently remind them that you’re doing this because you want to see them improve and succeed. By framing things in this way, they’ll be much more receptive to the feedback and strive to implement it, instead of getting demotivated.

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