Workplace Conflict: Handling a Difficult Conversation

Workplace Conflict: Handling a Difficult Conversation

This is an interesting article on handling difficult conversations. While the advice is helpful, I think it missed the essential point: that the person initiating the difficult conversation has to be fully prepared. Here’s what I mean.

I was privileged to have talk with a client (Kim) who was reviewing the outcome of a difficult conversation she had with her employee, Alisa. By all accounts Alisa is failing because she has some serious issues with conflict. The conflict is something Alisa readily admits she created. Alisa does not like to be supervised. Each time Kim tried to supervise Alisa, Alisa was extremely defensive about every comment Kim made Alisa also does not like to discuss any concerns she has with other people. So, Alisa avoids all conversations that seem stressful to her.

But, as a result, Alisa is failing and failing badly. She seems weak, or brittle, to others. Some are taking advantage of her meekness while others are ignoring her. No one wants to include her in their team because she doesn’t cooperate and her reactions to any comments are so intense that they just work around her anyway. Alisa’s colleagues won’t take direction from her because she is so timid and vulnerable that they feel they cannot tell her anything but good news.

Approaching the Difficult Conversation Step by Step

Without realizing it Alisa has built a wall around herself. She is “stonewalling” all communication. Her fear of anything that feels like criticism is so intense that she has isolated herself.  My client had to have that difficult conversation about Alisa’s behavior, the consequences, and what she wanted changed. That conversation was going to be intense and complicated. So, here’s the strategy we took to prepare for that difficult conversation.

1. Fears

We reviewed the sources of my client’s fears about difficult conversations. My client came to me to learn how to deal with difficult people and difficult conversations so she was familiar with three causes of fear: the inevitable adrenalin rush that comes from feeling threatened, the self-bullying saboteurs that tell us we have no right to judge others, and the ever present threats to our identity (who would we be if we could have those difficult conversations? Maybe we would have to think of ourselves differently?)

2. Awareness

We worked on who my client wanted to BE during the conversation. Was she the super-demanding boss, the sympathetic listener, the guide, the truth-teller?

My client opted for curious listener. This set the stage for the next steps.

3. Risks

We looked at what my client was willing to risk and not risk with Alisa. Turns out my client was willing to risk everything. If Alisa could not have the conversation, then she would keep trying but would start taking steps to deal with Alisa using progressive discipline.

4. Simplify

We tried to find ONE issue to discuss. There were so many things to look at: behavior, consequences (both personal and professional), team alienation. My client settled on discussing what Alisa was thinking when others approached her. This was an approach that would make my client curious about Alisa’s reactions to things and would create a chance for Alisa to discuss her fears rather than defend herself.

5. Logistics

My client set the stage for the meeting—time, place, agenda, etc. But, she let Alisa have input into everything, so Alisa felt some control. The conversation was going to happen but at least Alisa knew the details.

6. Control

My client had to decide what would make the conversation a success in advance of the conversation. This helped her hone the content and direction of the conversation and kept the “bar for success” reasonable and measurable.

Afterwards, we set a time to discuss the meeting so that my client was fully committed to the meeting and prepared to review and evaluate herself.

Workplace Conflict: Regaining Confidence

The results of the meeting were mixed. While my client felt good about the conversation  (she stuck to her plan and listened patiently while Alisa defended herself), in the end my client realized that the conversation was the first of many she was going to have. Some of those conversations would be focused on events—what happened, when and with whom. So that she could use examples to coach Alisa to handle conflicts. Others were going to be more about listening to Alisa’s fears and helping Alisa realize her opportunities.

Overall my client was happy with the first difficult conversation and I’m confident Alisa can step up and learn to deal with her fears.

This system has been very successful for my clients, so I’m proud to announce my ebook, “Stop Arguing & Start Working: 6 Steps to Being Confident, Calm and Capable During Difficult Conversations At Work.”  Whether it has been bullying, abrasive behaviors, or basic interpersonal workplace conflicts, I can tell you that my six-step system is field-tested and proven to prepare you for that difficult conversation and create solutions from it. The book is available now.

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I’ve been a strategic consultant on workplace conflict to executives worldwide for more than 20 years. My work brings individualized solutions to your teams’ lost productivity, loss of key personnel, low morale, and the high costs resulting from bullying, abrasive behaviors and interpersonal workplace conflicts.

I’m Kathleen Bartle, Conflict Consultant.