Difficult conversations in the workplace

How can managers get better with tough conversations in the office? Dr Jay Spence of Uprise shares his thoughts

Difficult conversations in the workplace

Difficult conversations are a part of all our lives, and even experienced managers can find them overwhelming. But being able to address difficult conversations supports the development of psychological safety in teams. Building your team to peak performance is contingent on them feeling comfortable taking risks, with candid feedback and speaking your mind as team norms.

“Honest conversations are known to lift performance, engagement and improve relationships within a team but it requires moving past discomfort and fear to initiate them," says Dr Jay Spence, CEO of Uprise. “It’s essential for managers to have the skills, knowledge and confidence to identify and manage problems at work early, before they escalate or create unnecessary complexity.” 

Accordingly, Uprise’s approach has been geared around providing managers with proven psychological techniques to improve confidence, knowledge and skills to identify and manage problems at work early on, before they escalate. Spence points to the importance of Employee Assistance Programs for building employee resilience to empower and strengthen the workforce.

“The data we’d gathered since COVID-19 hit was showing that only around half of employees felt their manager understood their wellbeing needs, and that more than two-thirds were reporting worsening mental health,” says Spence. “At the same time, a lot of difficult conversations were needed to discuss the realities of employee behaviour or business uncertainties. So we’ve seen an increase in utilisation of our manager programs, which are designed to help managers lead their teams with wellbeing in mind.”

Spence outlines four key steps for preparing for difficult conversations.

1. Know yourself

“The first and most important step in a manager's preparedness for difficult conversations is having a handle of their own mental threats and triggers,” says Spence. “Managers should consider whether their worry and stress levels are at a manageable level.”

Worry and stress, Spence explains, are fuelled by a faulty problem-solving mechanism where the mind generates “What if something goes wrong?” scenarios then more “What ifs” based on the last one. This causes stress in the body, which sends a signal to the mind that something is wrong, when it usually isn’t.

But managers can learn to break out of unhelpful cycles, by first writing down their predictions about what could go wrong. They can then begin developing the Mindset skill using the following three questions: 

  • What’s the worst thing that could happen, and how likely is it?
  • Have I been convinced something bad would happen but it never came true?
  • Is it likely that this situation will work out just like past situations?

Managers can learn to see their thoughts as just words, which makes it easier to just observe thoughts instead of getting caught up in believing them. A third-party perspective – such as from an HR leader – can also help clarify the issue objectively and provide valuable insights.

2. Think in advance

When preparing for the difficult conversation, it’s important for managers to have a clear understanding of the problem they are trying to solve. A common challenge faced is that the conversation gets side-tracked to other problems. Managers can miss addressing the core issue, so they need to be clear and structured to ensure the most pressing issue progresses.

“Uprise teaches skills like Reflective Listening, which is an evidence-based technique to get to the core issues on each side and to collaborate on a desired outcome,” says Spence. “It focuses on teaching a manager to consistently paraphrase the employee’s position, until the employee feels understood. This stops escalation and calms the employee down so that they are then more open to hearing the manager’s position and needs.”

3. In the moment

During the conversation, managers can rely on a range of skills to ensure they can respond appropriately and neutralise the impact of negative emotions.

“A key skill here is the ability to monitor internal emotional experiences closely and have strategies to relax in the moment so that frustration isn’t expressed inappropriately,” says Spence.

4. What next?

A successful difficult conversation should be framed around solutions and understanding. Managers should know the outcome they wish to achieve, and work with the employee to develop solutions that both parties agree upon. Managers should reflect on the employee’s perspective and how their position may have changed based on the information they provided.

“I’d always recommend that managers clarify and document the agreed actions and next steps,” says Spence.

In a follow up, managers should find out whether the issue is resolved or needs revisiting and provide further guidance if needed.

“At Uprise we work closely with managers to develop effective communication tools between them and their employees,” says Spence. “Managers who are supported to learn these skills will be more likely to engage in difficult conversations in a timely manner, and achieve more successful outcomes.”

Uprise is an Employee Assistance Program (EAP) that combines multiple wellbeing initiatives into a single, easy to use platform for HR and employees. 

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