Having those tough conversations

HR professionals need to lead the way during challenging conflicts

How often do people say they wish they didn’t have to deal with conflict, even when it’s part of their job? They wait and hope the problem will just go away. They express concern that they didn’t handle a tough conversation well the last time. They worry they will make the situation worse.

HR professionals are often called upon to have, and coach others to have, difficult and challenging conversations with employees and managers. If people are choosing not to have a conversation, have them reflect on the following: Is the certainty of silence triumphing over the uncertainty of speaking up? Are they sending out negative signals? Are they convinced they are helpless? Have they confused the question of whether the conversation will be difficult with the question of whether or not they should have it? If so, they’re not speaking up when they should be.

Conversations about unsatisfactory performance, inappropriate conduct or compensation are hard to talk about because they:

•             threaten a person’s self-identity

•             focus on important topics

•             often have serious consequences

•             jeopardize relationships.

The following best practices should conquer people’s fears and hone their conflict management skills.

Prepare by considering interests: Consider your interests and those of the company: 

•             Results (substantive) interests — What is the purpose of having the conversation? What would be an ideal outcome?

•             Process (procedural) interests — How can you be fair with the employee and perceived as fair by the unit or a third party (such as court if the employee was to sue for wrongful dismissal)?

•             Psychological (emotional) interests — What meaning does this conversation have for you? What “buttons” are being pushed? Are you more emotional than the situation warrants? Try to adopt a positive attitude to achieve maximum effectiveness.

Consider the employee’s interests:

•             Results interests — What might he be thinking? Is he aware of the seriousness of the situation? What solution do you think he would suggest?

•             Process interests — What would he consider to be fair and respectful?

•             Psychological interests — What are his fears? What emotions might he be experiencing? How might his feelings impair his ability to problem-solve?

Prepare open-ended, exploratory questions for the meeting:

•             “Is there anything about how we proceed today in terms of fairness or process that you would like to see?”

•             “How have you been feeling about your role?”

Focus on the future: Don’t argue about the past. When people argue about who is “right,” it leads to debate rather than exploration, learning or understanding. Actively listen to build an understanding of the employee’s perceptions. Demonstrate respect and remain curious.

Acknowledge emotions: Empathetic acknowledgment includes not just stating your understanding of what an employee has said. Acknowledge the feelings and emotional energy associated with what he said.

Explore contribution: Without realizing it, people can get into a contest of “Who gets to wear the blame?” Instead, explore the contribution system. Take responsibility for your own, or the company’s, contribution. Instead of “You’re responsible” try “How did we end up here?”

Ground identity: During a difficult conversation, people continually have three important self-identity questions running through their minds:

•             “Am I worthy or unworthy?”

•             “Does this show me to be competent or incompetent?”

•             “Am I good (have integrity) or bad (lack integrity)?”

These questions are often poorly framed as either/or, all or nothing questions. Reality is more complex and no one is perfectly competent at everything — everyone is learning. Neither are people always honourable or worthy in every aspect of their lives.

To have a productive conversation, people need to make it safe for both sides to speak authentically about the issues, without losing face. It’s about maintaining focus on the problem and not making it about the person.

Look for solutions: Take a collaborative, rather than adversarial, approach towards a solution. Create dialogue through continued inquiry. Ask for the employee’s point of view, rather than springing a pre-packaged solution or position on him. Ask if there’s anything he would like to see change, to make him feel better about his employment and contributions.

The art of managing difficult conversations is like any art — with continued practice, people will acquire skill and ease. Prepare by considering everyone’s range of interests, stay grounded, adopt a curious stance, manage emotions, allow everyone’s identity to stay intact, and focus on the future to greatly influence an opportunity for a productive “learning” conversation. 

Heather Swartz and Rick Russell are partners at Agree Dispute Resolution in Dundas, Ont. Heather can be reached at [email protected] and Rick can be reached at [email protected] For more information, visit www.agreeinc.com.


Calling in the experts

Sometimes, issues arise in the workplace where a facilitated conversation, despite being difficult, could potentially resolve the situation. Depending on the circumstances, the manager or HR could serve as the internal facilitator. 

When should an external third party be brought in? When facilitators from within the organization:

•             come with “baggage”

•             aren’t seen as neutral

•             have other roles to play in resolving the issue if the disputants cannot come to an agreement

•             have obligations to either the disputants, or to the organization they serve, to protect the organizational or public interest in the outcome of the negotiation.

And when the issues are complex, emotions are high or the consequences could be serious, and significant procedural knowledge is required.

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