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how to handle difficult conversations in the workplace leadership coach anne koopmann

How to Handle Difficult Conversations in the Workplace

As a leader, you often have to engage in difficult conversations. It can feel tempting to avoid the conversation and wait for things to pass. This does not lead to any resolution and can cause more issues in the future. So how do you handle difficult conversations in the workplace?

Avoiding these conversations can have a negative impact on the relationships with your peers, with your colleagues, with your manager and with your team members. It’s important you engage in difficult conversations because it shows you have the courage to speak up, to be vulnerable and to talk about things that might cause discomfort at the start. However, they can lead to great progress.

Your direct reports also need your feedback. They want feedback. So let’s look at five tips that will help you to make this a little bit easier for the next time you have to prepare and engage in a difficult conversation.

1 – Lean in

When it comes to having a difficult conversation, the first tip is to lean in. Start from a place of curiosity, open-mindedness, and really lean into the conversation. Lead with a positive attempt to look for why these people are reacting or behaving in a certain way. Ask yourself, “what are their motivations?” and “what’s going on for them?”. Start to lean in and be open to really learn about the other person and their concerns, frustrations, needs and wants.

Try and see the good in the person and the situation.

2 – Self regulate 

The next tip is to self regulate. This is all about making sure when you feel nervous, or scared within these conversations that you take some time before the meeting to calm yourself. When we are in a state of high emotions, we are actually not able to think clearly or rationally.

You might find yourself in fight or flight mode and your rational part of your thinking brain is switched off. When you go into difficult conversations, you want to make sure we use self-regulating techniques to calm ourselves down first so that we in a neutral state.

How to regulate your emotions in the heat of the moment, can be explored here.

 3 – Listen 

Tip number three is to listen. You actually don’t have to do much talking. It’s all about listening and trying to understand what’s really going on for the person you are having the difficult conversation with. What has been happening in their lives, in their situation? Why have certain things come about?

Try to understand where the difficulties lie and what they need from you. Don’t listen to respond, listen to understand. So often when we listen to another person, our thoughts keep going and going and going. We are ready, crafting our response and all the clever things that we want to say.

The key is to actively listen. You can respond after.

Here are some other tips. Don’t talk over them. Don’t brush them off and don’t just assume that you know what’s going on because often you don’t know. So listen, be quiet and try to use your curiosity.

4 – Tune into empathy 

The next tip is to tune into your empathy. Really try to put yourself in the other person’s shoes. Try to look at this situation from their perspective. Ask yourself, “I wonder why they’re reacting this way. I wonder what happened”. Use your curiosity, a theme coming up a lot in this article.

Try and understand what’s going on for this person and what their perspective is. Then show that you understand. Make them feel seen and heard by holding space for this person.

5 – Show courage 

The last tip is to show courage. It takes courage to have difficult conversations. It can be so difficult. It’s a vulnerable time for you and for the other person. There’s potential for conflict. There’s potential for criticism, but you are the leader and have the role to step up. Now it’s your time to embrace difficult conversations, prepare yourself, but then take courage.

You might not be able to control the outcome, but you can prepare as best as you can. It’s your time now to really lean in, show courage and embrace conversations. Take short-term discomfort for long-term comfort.

Final thoughts

These five tips will help you to really embrace difficult conversations. You can prepare them in advance. You can prepare when you have to give feedback.

But the key for difficult conversations is to lean in to self regulate your own emotions, your own fears and thoughts of what’s going on to truly listen. To show and tune into your empathy and to have courage.

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