Holding a difficult conversation is by definition not an easy thing to do. Most of us dread having that sinking feeling in the pit of the stomach at the prospect of an ugly confrontation. Perhaps you wish to request a colleague to pull their weight on projects or inform someone to stop interrupting in meetings. A difficult conversation is generally one in which we need to convey unpleasant news, request a change to something that’s currently wrong or discuss a delicate subject. It’s unlikely that we can make it through our working lives without being obliged to have such discussions now and then. The difficult art to holding them successfully is to make them constructive rather than accusatory.

A survey conducted by Pureprofile, Australia, found that two out of every three employees valued job happiness and satisfaction over money. So emotional satisfaction at work means that we need to ensure workplace harmony. The truth is that the very prospect of having a stressful dialogue can pre-emptively fill us with anxiety and trepidation. As human beings, we are often limited by our own fears and concerns. We may be fearful of hurting another’s feelings, creating conflict or of imposing unwelcome limits. If you are dealing with a person who is also difficult, you may be apprehensive of how they react to your words. Many of us are averse to creating scenes in the workplace and being the centre of the wrong kind of attention may be the last thing we want.

When we are dealing with a difficult person, there is a risk of the conversation degenerating into a shouting match. People are much more likely to call each other names or say things that are unhelpful or irrational while communicating from a state of uncontrolled emotion. Resulting outcomes usually include resentment, anxiety, stress and a spike in hostility. The warring parties may indulge in unhealthy competition or avoid each other altogether.

Whether it is informing a team leader that a project is delayed or sitting through a negative performance review, difficult conversations can be extremely stressful. The results can often be unpredictable, sensitivities and defensiveness may lead to the stress of the situation escalating. While it may not be possible to eliminate the discomfort associated with difficult conversations, thoughtful handling can help improve outcomes. Avoiding or procrastinating a difficult conversation often results in unresolved issues which worsen over time. Moreover, others may resent you for not dealing with the person’s problem behaviour. Finally, there is the danger that other employees may mimic the worker’s undesirable attitude if it not tackled.

Similarly, you may also find it stressful to deal with difficult people in general. Ideally, every workplace would be filled with friendly, courteous and hardworking people. Unfortunately, the reality is quite different and every workplace has its fair share of rudeness, bullies, gossips and controlling people. Our reluctance to deal with difficult people or having difficult conversations stems from our innate tendency to avoid confrontation and conflict. It’s not pretty when a difficult team member ends up sabotaging staff welfare, harmony and productivity. Difficult people add significant negativity to a workplace. As a manager, you may be forced to deal with someone who throws temper tantrums, displays sulky behaviour or resents his or her colleagues. Such anxieties fill our minds and leave no space for concentrating on other important tasks. If an employee behaviour is negatively impacting team morale, then proactive action needs to be taken which will involve having that difficult conversation that you’ve been putting off.

A natural instinct is to rush difficult conversations and force the pace of communication in the bargain. Trying to get the communication over and one with is a very common subconscious response. However it is very important to leave room for breathing space and allow the other person to respond. This also allows you to take a step back from your emotions and conduct the conversation in an objective manner. This, however is easier said than done.

Expert strategies can help you control your body language, regulate your tone and become aware of your facial expressions. These subtle factors can influence the outcome of a difficult conversation and clarify communication to a significant extent. Professional training and development can also help you practice active listening and convey your point of view in an effective, courteous yet assertive manner.

At Emergency Support Network, we understand the pressures of working in a twenty-first century corporate environment. Our experienced consultants will be happy to provide coaching and training in conducting difficult conversations and dealing with difficult people. We have a range of training programs suited to all levels for dealing with difficult conversations positively. Please feel free to contact us for our wide range of coaching, training and staff development services.