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How to handle difficult business conversations

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Small business owners will inevitably need to have tough talks with employees from time to time. How you approach such meetings can have a big impact on the outcome, says David Kentish

Nobody feels good about having a difficult conversation. I’ve had to have them over the years and people have had to have them with me. It’s part of working life. No one enjoys being on either side of the desk. However, consider the consequences of not having a difficult conversation. The problem festers and can start to affect other people in the company, and even the bottom line. 

There are all sorts of difficult conversations at work, from dealing with a subordinate to talking through an issue with a partner or client. Some cases – such as redundancies or disciplinary issues – may require the presence of an HR person, but often taking such a formal approach isn’t appropriate. 

Here are some practical ways of approaching a difficult conversation and helping to ensure a positive outcome.

Do it in private

Finding somewhere private to talk is important as you don’t want to have difficult conversations in the open. If you are instigating the conversation you need to be able to control it, especially if you work in an open-plan environment where people might be walking past and hear parts of the conversation, or stop to chat. So plan ahead, and book an appropriate meeting room. To ensure privacy it may be wise to book a room on another floor or away from the immediate team.

Get to the point

With any scenario, get straight to the point – don’t indulge in small talk. Otherwise, the person may think this is a ‘normal’ conversation. It’s essential to take the most direct approach. So start the conversation with, for example, “the reason I’ve called you in here today is to talk about your timekeeping” or “the reason I’ve called you in here today is because there is a problem with…”

Give the person space

Outline the issue and give the person space to respond. For example, if someone is regularly coming into work late, find out what the individual issues are and take it from there. Don’t just launch in with what you’ve seen at face value without finding out the reasons. This individual might need some help because of a recent personal problem, and as an employer you have a duty of care to offer support if warranted. If there aren’t any underlying reasons, go straight back to the issue and the consequences to the employee if it is not resolved.

Keep to the facts

Difficult conversations normally focus on behaviour. What you say may be taken personally, so relate it to the effect it is having on the business or other people. Don’t make wild accusations or get personal.

Be prepared for any eventuality

People react very differently if they feel they are being criticised. Some will apologise and promise to change, or suggest ways to improve the situation. Others might get angry and start making counter-criticisms or accusations. Still others will get upset. Whatever happens, stay calm. If a person is shouting, keep your voice level normal. If they stand up, remain seated unless you are under physical threat. A box of tissues handed to a person who is upset shows support, helps to get over awkwardness and gives them time to compose themselves.

David Kentish is co-founder and director of people development specialists Kentish & Co  www.kentishandco.com