How to navigate difficult conversations

Laura Williams, SBL coach and trainer, L J Business Consultancy, discusses how you can bite the bullet and not be afraid of having difficult conversations

It’s inevitable that we’ll need to have difficult conversations with members of our teams at some point or another and these will vary in terms of purpose and level of seriousness.

For those conversations that happen when you know that there’s an issue that needs addressing, but you’re not yet in a ‘formal’ process – aka the awkward bit in the middle, the bit where it could go either way – here are three questions to ask yourself to make sure you’re as prepared as possible for that conversation.

First question to ask yourself is…have you been clear?

  • Does that member of staff know (in fact do all your staff know) what is acceptable and what’s not?
  • Have you clearly stated your expectations in terms of behaviour and performance?
  • Or, more specifically, and perhaps more importantly, have you made it clear in those instances where your staff/this individual have fallen short?
  • Not only do you need to be clear about your expectations, and when people fall short, but also what the consequences of their continued behaviour or poor performance will be. You also need to be absolutely prepared to follow it through so the consequences need to be realistic, appropriate and within policy.

Second question to ask yourself is…have you been reasonable?

  • I find it useful to think about a union and what they would say about the situation. Think ahead, worst case scenario – what would they ask?
  • The member of staff might not think you have been reasonable – understandably – but the union might well see that you have.
  • You need to be totally clear on what you’ve done and why you’ve done it and to make sure that the processes you’ve followed and implemented as a line manager are within policy, fair and reasonable.

The third question to ask yourself is…is the member of staff already aware of the issue you’re going to raise with them?

  • Do they have an idea that this conversation is coming, or is this going to hit them round the side of the head from nowhere?
  • If you’ve not made even a passing reference to your concerns before this conversation then you will definitely need to approach it very differently than if this is your third go round the houses about this topic. You’ve had plenty of time to put the picture together but, to them, this could be big news
  • It could well be 0-60 and people are people. When in a situation like this, faced with a difficult discussion with their line manager, an individual can react in many ways – they may be surprised, embarrassed, defensive, aggressive, upset…they may even appear not to react at all and shut down and not speak (I’ve had this a couple of times) or they may be relieved that they can talk about this to you now, and open up (I’ve had this too!)

Remember, a difficult conversation in this context isn’t about proving guilt or apportioning blame, it’s about establishing dialogue, meeting in the middle, getting on the same page and agreeing a way forward.

I know having these conversations is tough, and it’s definitely one of the more unpleasant parts of the SBM role, but’s natural to doubt yourself at first. It shows you are taking your responsibility as a manager seriously. However, when you start to worry about how the person will respond to you, or what other staff will think of you, you begin to talk yourself out of having the conversation at all.
Stop! Take a moment to check in with yourself. What do you think about the situation?
Ask yourself what would happen if you didn’t have that conversation? Who would be impacted if this issue didn’t get addressed?

This blog summarises a recent School Business Leadership podcast episode – Episode 29: Difficult Conversations: 3 Questions To Ask Yourself. You can check it out here: 

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