How to tackle that difficult conversation

7 Oct 13
Difficult conversations are a common aspect of working life – particularly in the current belt-tightening environment. But rather than dreading these, managers can view them positively as stepping stones to progress if handled correctly, advise Bob Stilliard and Viki Holton

By Bob Stilliard and Viki Holton | 07 September 2013

Difficult conversations are a common aspect of working life  – particularly in the current belt-tightening environment. But rather than dreading these, managers can view them positively as stepping stones to progress if handled correctly, advise Bob Stilliard and Viki Holton.

Management Development October

The prospect of having that difficult conversation can be traumatic. And in the public finance arena, the issues can be complex. Not only are there personnel or interpersonal problems that need to be addressed, but also potentially difficult conversations with other parties that can impact finance teams.

These include the stakeholders, such as senior management, politicians and taxpayers, and then there is the need to referee the crossfire between other departments over finance issues. 

If all this wasn’t challenging enough, there are also the staff concerns, such as giving someone negative feedback, warning a staff member who is not pulling their weight or having to make an employee redundant. 

All of these highly emotional circumstances can leave managers feeling overwhelmed. It can cause much soul-searching and stress, worrying about how to conduct the conversation and what to say.  

In the recent climate of uncertainty and fear for job security, those conducting difficult conversations must appreciate all the personal and wider factors that play themselves out during such encounters. It can make them feel more dangerous than they really are. 

Difficult conversations facing finance teams could also be over the disciplines of some departments or between others over budget issues. They could be about persuading another department to share in the costs of an initiative, when each party doesn’t value it equally. 

There may be the need to convince a stakeholder to generate a proportion 

of its funding instead of relying on centrally controlled public funds. This might involve calling for a more entrepreneurial approach from managers who have previously worked in a totally funded environment. 

Another situation could require a finance professional to justify the decision to allocate scarce funds to one project rather than to another, using criteria that are not part of the accountant’s traditional skill set.  

Getting through the difficult conversations is often what moves an organisation forward. If it is delayed, it can cause an issue to fester. The consequences of not holding a hard-

to-have conversation could be far worse for the individuals concerned, as well as for the department. 

Avoiding the issue could lead to a malaise that drags down individual job performance and overall efficiency. Or it could be that the conversation is needed to clear the air of current barriers. 

The outcome can have a trigger reaction on the whole way the individual, department or team operates. What other chains of events could follow?  So many uncomfortable feelings and relationships could arise. What other actions, and what other difficult conversations, could also result? These are all factors that need consideration. 

The approach to a conversation is most important. Those who steam in without thinking can cause even more problems, which is almost as bad as delaying the meeting. But it is important to prepare for the meeting, and get the thoughts and approach clear in your mind. Stay focused, yet calm, and also try to respect the thoughts, feelings and perspectives of the other people involved. 

Tackle the difficult conversation well, and then you and your department or team should be able to progress more effectively, and will be on your way to removing the problem or problems that existed. 

Here are practical tips that may guide your future difficult conversations. 

1 To begin

Make sure you start the conversation in a pleasant and non-confrontational manner. But don’t beat around the bush. After initial pleasantries have been exchanged, make sure you get to the point quickly and air your concerns without making any assumptions about what will happen. Keep your language clear and direct. Don’t make the problem bigger than it is, and also don’t minimise it either. 

2 Prepare Yourself 

Don’t launch into the conversation unprepared. Think carefully beforehand about the key points you want to make and what actions or solutions you are going to propose. Think about the possible outcomes, too. Be ‘patient, precise and prepared’ – the type of personal qualities that will earn you the respect of others.

3 Integrity 

If you behave fairly and act with integrity and honesty, you will gain respect. Always keep in mind ‘what’s best for the organisation’, as this will help to focus on business rather than personal issues. People may leave the meeting feeling that the manager has blocked what they wanted to do, but the reasons should be clear and linked to the organisational needs. 

4 Listen 

Give the other person a chance to put their perspective forward. There could be underlying issues you are not aware of that are affecting their behaviour or a training need behind below-par performance. Listen carefully to what is being said – as well as to what is not being said. Try to understand their perspective, thoughts, feelings and experiences. Ask questions. But don’t be defensive.

5 Keep Emotions in Check

Try not to raise your voice or lose your temper, even if the other person becomes confrontational. It doesn’t help anyone if the conversation escalates into an argument. Don’t take the conversation personally and whatever you do, don’t be aggressive. Keep your cool.

6 Winning 

Forget about winning – you always want the best solution rather than seeing your own ideas ‘win’ through.

7 Mind Your Body Language

Make sure your body language is positive. Avoid crossing your arms, maintain eye contact and keep your tone of voice calm. Be aware of the employee’s body language, too. It will give you an idea of how well the conversation is going and whether they are being receptive to your message. 

8 Avoid turf wars

Do not get involved in turf wars between different parts of the organisation or among your senior colleagues. Try to maintain your distance with integrity (and a good dose of diplomacy).

9 Practice

It does not always follow that the more difficult conversations you have, the better you get at handling them. However, as management guru Malcolm Gladwell has pointed out, significant practice significantly increases the chance of success in many occupations. The same is often true for those tough issues such as presentations, influencing and – not least – handling difficult conversations.

10 Think about others in your team

Finally, think about others in your team – how skilled are they in managing difficult conversations, and what could you (as well as the team) do to help them? 

Bob Stilliard is programme director of Ashridge Business School’s Finance for Managers open programme, and Viki Holton, a research fellow at Ashridge Business School, is a co-author of Women in Business, published by Palgrave Macmillan

This feature was first published in the October edition of Public Finance magazine


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