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The Three Toughest Conversations You Have At Work

The Three Toughest Conversations You Have At Work

The coming financial year will see tough economic times for countless businesses and many of us will be forced to tackle very tricky conversations.

Whether it’s an emotionally-charged discussion around a job termination or another colleague’s behaviour, the common denominator is that all of these conversations will be tough. But, it’s how we handle these tough conversations that define us and our careers.

Difficult situations at work weigh heavily on us and while making minor changes to how you deal with the ‘tough stuff’ might seem small today, over the course of time, those small changes can make a huge impact.

Here are three of the toughest conversations you will ever have in the workplace:

1. “You no longer have a job”: the dismissal or restructure conversation.

Don’t even attempt to remove emotion from the conversation. There will be emotion and you will have to deal with it. Recognise tears and sadness are okay but tread carefully with sympathy verses empathy. Statements such as, ‘it looks like you are really upset’ are helpful while ‘I’m sorry this is happening to you’ sends the message ‘I’m glad it’s you and not me’.

Always remember to keep the tone and volume of your voice underneath the other person’s. If it does get heated voices can be raised. Never be tempted to match the escalation. People do not usually shout for very long if the other party doesn’t reciprocate, as it makes them feel uncomfortable.

The social rule of direct eye contact is dangerous. Although we’re taught to look someone in the eye, this is the most personal communication medium and the person on the receiving end often has no choice but to take the message personally. Share an independent visual medium such as some written notes to help you talk about ‘it’ (the restructure or termination) instead of ‘you’.

2. “I don’t like your attitude”: the awkward personality conversation.

Never use phrases like ‘I don’t want you to take this the wrong way.’ This is a classic priming statement and now the person is on the lookout for a way to ‘take it the wrong way.’ Always prime the person towards the successful outcome, such as ‘I need us to both be on the same page’

Avoid naming unhelpful traits. ‘I want to talk about you being arrogant.’ Ouch. I can guarantee this conversation will head south, fast. Take the unhelpful trait and find strength – cynical becomes realistic and interfering becomes inquisitive. This paints a different picture yet remains on topic. For instance, when addressing arrogance – “One of your strengths is that you’re a confident guy, but there are times when your confidence can be a little overwhelming or misplaced. Let me give you an example…”

3. “Your work is just not good enough”: the underperformance conversation.

One of the biggest mistakes people make is to focus on ‘traits’ instead of ‘behaviours’. Firstly, confusion occurs because the definition of a certain trait varies from person to person. I may consider dedication as taking on extra tasks while you might interpret this as more thoroughness in your projects.

Secondly, traits are often enduring patterns. Thinking you can change them in a half hour conversation is ambitious. Don’t tell someone they ‘lack initiative’ – highlight that they rarely put their hand up to lead projects and you will have a much higher chance of success.

And for those on the receiving end? It’s hard to rationalise without the full picture, so even if you’re seething with rage, you need to match the tough conversation with tough questions. And remember this; all bad seas are followed by calm weather. It won’t last forever. Focusing on next steps rather than dwelling on the wrongs will help you to make the best of your situation.


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