Holding difficult conversations

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Most of us instinctively know when it is the right moment to deal with a problem. Issues do crop up without warning, but more often than not there are warning signs. You can help make conversations with your employees less difficult by:

  • having a quiet word at the rst sign that something is wrong. For example, you may notice that an employee becomes more moody and withdrawn or is acting out of character
  • keeping in touch with your staff and the team. If they see that you are approachable and ready to listen, they are more likely to come to you at an early stage, when you might be able to act decisively to help
  • using employee representatives as sounding boards for how staff are feeling about issues. For example, there may be unhappiness about the way change is being managed within the organisation.

It is far better to nip problems in the bud, wherever possible, rather than waiting for them to become more entrenched or complicated.


It’s difficult, but why?

Talking face to face with an employee about issues or problems you both feel strongly about will take many managers out of their comfort zone. You may be worried that the meeting will turn into a confrontation or that it will not go as planned.

This sense of anxiety is a very natural response to a challenging situation and may be caused by feeling that you are not in complete control of:

  • The facts. What happened, when and why? It will not be enough to breeze into a meeting con dent that you ‘get the gist’ of what has been going on.
  • Your emotions. You are expected to be in charge, aren’t you? So what happens if emotions run high and you become embroiled in a heated exchange of views?
  • Your employee’s emotions. You may have prepared well for the interview and even have a rough plan of what you will say, but you cannot always predict how the employee will respond. For example, they may throw accusations back at you, or break down in tears.
  • The level of support you will get. If you haven’t informed your line manager and/or HR what you plan to do and the line you are going to take, you may end up feeling isolated or undermined.
  • What happens next. Ideally, you will agree a plan of action with the employee to help address the problem, whether it’s to do with performance, attendance or a personal matter, but what happens if, as a result of the meeting, the employee raises a grievance against you?

Many managers feel that the nature of the encounter forces them to act out of character – perhaps appearing more strict and business-like than in normal, day-to-day interactions. They may also be concerned that they may not have the right skills to tackle the meeting and solve the problem, and that they may get ‘found out’ in some way.


Check your facts

If you are dealing with a performance or conduct issue, for example, you need to have the relevant facts at your fingertips. What were the employee’s performance targets and in what way have they failed to meet these targets? Are there any extenuating circumstances – for example, if they have been on sickness absence or training courses do you need to adjust the targets?

Do you have evidence of under performance – performance metrics?

Do you have examples of inappropriate behaviour – dates / events / notes of what what said or how they reacted?

Do you have comments from customers or colleagues that back up your case?

If there is an attendance issue, make sure you have an accurate record of the employee’s timekeeping. If you made a note of them coming in late on several occasions but didn’t say anything, why not?

Ideally, if you have been giving regular feedback, there should not be any surprises in store for the employee at the meeting.


Plan the meeting in advance

Decide on a location

  • you need to be able to have an open, frank one-to-one conversation in private
  • face to face is more effective than telephone or email, as the employee can see the matter is being taken seriously

Room layout

  • sitting opposite someone with a table in front shows formality
  • sitting next to someone can be less threatening

Allow sufficient time:

  • don’t rush
  • allow time for a break to gather your thoughts or obtain more information
  • give yourself some breathing space after the meeting, as you could be emotionally drained

Questioning skills for managers

The ability to use an appropriate type of question and get a useful response is the hallmark of an effective questioner. Development of this skill requires time and practice. It is worth being familiar with the following types of question:

Type of questionExampleBenefitsDrawbacks
Open QuestionWhy did you leave?

To what extent would you say?

How do you feel about?

Open questions normally start with who, where, what, why, when or how.

These encourage the other person to talk freely, as little or no restriction is placed on their answer. They enable people to ‘open up’ on any topic, opinions or feelings.The person may talk too much, drift away from the subject you have in mind and start to control the interview. To avoid this, try using a quali er. For example, ‘Very brie y, tell me how you..’ or ‘In a few words…’
Closed questionsWhat time did it happen?

How long did it take?

Did you speak first?

These questions can be effective in verifying speci c information, re-focusing on the subject in hand or emphasising a vital point.They can be very unhelpful when dealing with feelings. For example, ‘Did that make you feel bad?’ may not illicit the depth of response you were hoping for.
Probing / reflective questionsWhy did you say that?

What, in particular, made you feel like that?

Are you telling me that?

Useful in seeking depth and detail.The employee may feel threatened. Attention must be given to anticipating and monitoring the effect on the person.

Active listening for Managers

What does active listening involve?

When we listen to others we interpret the message they are giving to us through a combination of:

  • words
  • tone of voice
  • facial expressions and body language.

Skilled communicators use non-verbal behaviour to back up and enhance what they are saying.

Active listening is a vital part of oral communication. It strengthens your relationship with the employee by demonstrating that you think they have something worthwhile to say.

Active listening involves picking up the more subtle signals being given to us, as well the words.

Facial expressions can be the hardest to control and often betray our real emotions.

DODON’T
✓  Use supportive and encouraging gestures, such as nods of the head and smiles
✓  Make eye contact: look at the speaker directly without staring
✓  Take notes: jot down key words and use these for later questions
✓  Look interested by facing the speaker, altering your facial expression and staying relaxed and calm
✓  Ask questions – but try to avoid interrupting.
✗  Modify the message you hear to suit your own view
✗  Be pre-occupied with your own problems
✗  Make up your mind too quickly without hearing the whole story
✗  Become anxious about what you are hearing and over-react
✗  Be prejudicial and listen with a closed mind.

Staying in control

The key to managing difficult conversations is control. You need to control the meeting and how it progresses. This means you decide if and when you need to adjourn for a break and what tactics are working and if you need to change your approach.

For example, you may have started out being quite expansive and friendly, but realise that a firmer style is needed to bring the meeting to a conclusion and agree a way forward.

Although it can be tempting to enter a meeting wanting to be liked and to maintain a close friendship with the employee, most conversations will work best if you adopt a professional manner. Set out from the beginning how the meeting will run, the issues you wish to discuss and how you hope to move forward.

It can be difficult to control your emotions if the employee becomes confrontational or makes an accusation about you. They may seek to get behind your defences by appealing to you personally and hoping you will identify with their point of view or concerns. Remember to focus on the behaviour and not the person and to remain objective and non-judgemental at all times.

 

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