It’s a fact: addressing situations that result in disagreement or tension can be stressful. No one wants to handle them, but sometimes we’re put in positions where we just have to. The thing is, these conversations do not have to be difficult if you prepare yourself for a positive outcome.
It’s important to know what you are getting into when you address “difficult” conversations. While you don’t want to script your conversation and get your mind set on one outcome, you do want to have an idea on how you will handle the conversation and its possible outcomes—both positive and negative.
PMP Training – Resources (Intense)
Read “The Anatomy of a Difficult Conversation” to gather tips for preparing yourself for the best, and remember, it’s your job to keep a healthy, positive attitude while trying to address the issue. It’s easy to get worked up and upset, but at the end of the day, that will only stress you out more and show the other parties involved that you’re not equipped to stay cool.
Impromptu Conversation or Scheduled Meeting?
As soon as you’ve done your prep, you will be champing at the bit to just get the conversation over with. Maybe that’s because you’re eager to resolve it, maybe it’s because the stress of the situation is eating away at you, or maybe it’s because the situation is getting worse. No matter the case, you won’t want to spend too much time planning. Get to it and resolve the issue.
There’s something nice about approaching someone briefly and just saying, “Do you have a few minutes to chat?” In general, it feels very non-confrontational and in some way, it minimizes the tension of the situation. So, use your judgment, but if you’re trying to resolve an issue quickly and you think you’ll be able to “grab” someone for a quick chat, do it.
Before you do, make sure that the other person is the type to be okay with being approached like this. Remember, a lot of people live and die by their calendars. An impromptu meeting could throw them off and upset them.
There is no doubt that scheduling a meeting will send a message. Many organizations require an agenda for any meeting scheduled—and many people would want to know what the meeting is for anyway.
Be sure to think this through: will the person or people you’re going to meet with react negatively if they know you’re addressing the situation? Depending on the person or the situation, extra time to mull over the issue could make it even worse.
No matter what, the best path is to be 100% honest about the intent of the meeting. Keep a positive tone and express that the intent of the meeting is to discuss an issue and resolve it—together. The language you use and how you position the meeting will most definitely impact the mental states or attitudes people will go into the meeting with.
Not sure how to handle it? Here are some traits or questions to consider when deciding on your approach:
- What is the level of intensity of the situation? If it’s one that could cause someone to be fired or to quit, you will most likely want to call an immediate, impromptu meeting.
- How well do you know the person or people? Personalities play a large role in how you handle these interpersonal situations. If you know the person and feel a more relaxed approach will work, call an impromptu meeting.
- What’s your workplace culture? If you call an impromptu meeting, can you run out together for a coffee or lunch? Or will you have to stay in the office? Where the meeting takes place can certainly impact how people feel about it. Keep in mind, while a formal atmosphere may feel necessary for more serious situations, a relaxed atmosphere—like a coffee shop—may be more conducive to conversation and working out an issue in a relaxed, friendly way.
You will need to pick an approach, time, and format that you feel will work best for the situation and the people involved. Sometimes you’ll get it right, sometimes not. No matter how you handle it, admit mistakes and stick to your decisions and work hard to resolve the issue.
Meeting Means Talking and Listening
As soon as you’ve pulled everyone together—whether it’s a one-on-one or group meeting—establish the purpose of the meeting. You are together to resolve the issue. In order to get there, express the desire to have everyone be happy and heard, not just to avoid interpersonal issues or conflict, but for the health of your work.
These meetings can bring on a level of stress that makes people uncomfortable, so they often do not realize that their personal opinions and emotions can get in the way of a productive outcome. When they do get in the way, work and working relationships fail. So express a goal that everyone can agree on: to speak freely and be heard.
Start with a general description of the issue. Keep it high level and don’t add color commentary to the story. State the facts and follow them up with ground rules for your meeting:
1. The purpose of the meeting is to resolve the issue at hand.
Issue management can be confusing. People have opinions to be heard, and they’ll vary. Facts will be hard to check or verify, and you’ll sometimes feel like you’re caught in a web of disaster. Nevertheless, you can stand in the middle and ensure that everyone is heard and that each story, point, or argument leads to a resolution.
First, end the issue right then and there. Turn the focus from finger pointing to resolving. You want the team to know that the issue has ended and that you’re in this meeting to end it together. Additional finger pointing or arguing will only make the issue worse and drag out the outcome you want and need.
2. Speak now or forever hold your peace.
The environment of this meeting is one of discussion. In order to keep a positive attitude about a resolution, everyone will have a chance to be heard.
Do your best to moderate the meeting and make sure that all parties have a chance to speak up. This may mean that you go around the room and have everyone state how they feel about the issue. Or maybe you will bring in an outside moderator to ensure that all parties are being vocal (they could do the job of calling on people and asking them how they feel).
However you handle it, be sure to consider all parties and where they sit in the situation. Some people will be heated and will speak up. Others will be quiet and just listen. Try to maintain a balance and allow everyone to weigh in, but don’t cut anyone off. When you close the meeting, be sure that everyone has said their piece. If they haven’t, you’ll open the door for additional issues or resentment to creep in.
3. Listen up.
Establish a modicum of respect. Everyone will not only have a chance to speak, but everyone is expected to listen. This means no cutting people off, no side conversations, and no questions unanswered.
Again, you might want someone to moderate this conversation if you’ve got a larger group. If that’s not possible, do your best to keep the flow of conversation headed in the direction of an outcome. Don’t let one person dominate the conversation and don’t let an issue go unaddressed.
Conversations can wind ten different ways with one comment. If you feel as though things are getting off track, keep notes or track issues mentioned on a whiteboard that everyone can see. This will ensure that everyone is not only given a chance to speak, but that their issues, large or small, are being heard.
4. The meeting will not end without a resolution or a plan for one in place.
If you truly want to address the issue, you must come up with a resolution for it. This is the point of your meeting, of course. Moreover, you want to come to an agreement as a team. As you circle the issues through conversation, ask “How can we resolve it?” of the attendees or suggest solutions as you see fit.
Letting attendees know that this meeting is not just a venue to complain, but one to resolve the issue at hand—together—will greatly impact the way your conversation happens. This is especially true if your meeting is taking place with limited time. So, maybe think of a rough agenda for the discussion. It could look something like this:
1. Identify the issue.
2. Discuss the outcomes.
3. Team decides on solution action plan.
4. Discuss the next steps.
Keeping focus on the outcome will help you to stay on track. If you give the group a goal, they will focus on the solution more than the problem.
Use Thoughtful Language
The way you express your emotions, describe facts, and even interact with others in this meeting will impact the course of the conversation.
Disagreements are tricky, because they might be about a hard and cold fact, but emotions always come in to play. As humans, we express our feelings in different ways. One person might show outright anger through harsh language, while another might be calm and collected but express the same ire. Either way, be mindful of your language and how it could be perceived.
Inclusive language shows the team that you are invested in resolving the issue with them, not for them. It also shows that you are dedicated to rebuilding the trust of the team and strengthen the bond of the working relationship. No matter how it ends, you want to share a common feeling of respect and dignity, and that can be done with using words that are:
- Inclusive of everyone: we, us, our, team
- Polite: please, thank you, excuse me
- Solution oriented: next steps, solution/resolution, plan
Finding the Right Solution
Discussing (or complaining about) issues is easy. Finding solutions that work for everyone can be difficult. Guide the conversation in a way that it points all parties to possible solutions. Here are some scenarios and quick solutions that could help you:
It happens: two people have a professional disagreement and it escalates. Maybe you’re one of those people. If you are, address the issue head on. Approach the person and talk to them about a way to fix it together.
If you’re managing people who are in conflict, it might be best to have them sort it out on their own. The best thing to do is ask them to speak to one another before involving you. Facilitating a solution can be far more successful than prescribing one.
If an issue is impacting a larger group, you’ll have to conduct a meeting. After everyone has had a chance to speak, transition the meeting to solutions. You might not hear solutions, so it could be up to you to identify them for the group.
Of course, there will be times when no one likes any of the solutions raised. That’s fun! If it does happen, ask for alternatives and discuss why the solutions proposed will not work. If you run out of time, start a collaborative document and follow-up within 24 hours to see what you have come up with.
There’s a definite chance that you’ll end up frustrated in group situations, because it’s hard to gain consensus. At some point, you will need to be the authority figure and decide on an outcome. This can be unnerving, because the decision sits only with you and you become acutely aware of how the success or failure of the solution will be seen as yours and yours alone. If you’re working with a team, you don’t want to operate that way.
Do your best to share the burden on the decision and involve individuals in the execution of the plan. This will spread that feeling of accountability.
Whether your issue is big or small, with one people or several, you need to follow-up on your solution to ensure that it’s actually working. This can be done with one-on-one meetings to help you understand and monitor progress and feelings.Make sure your plans are clear and that your communications about them support it 100%.
This can also be done with in person meetings, or even simple team status updates via email or in a shared communication tool.Do whatever feels right for your team and do everything you can to pay attention to the details and rebuild (or help to rebuild) trust and relationships.
Say Hello to Agreement and Goodbye to Disagreement
When you’ve made it through the prep, the meeting, and end up with a workable solution, you’ll feel gratified in knowing that you played a key role in fixing the issue. But there is one thing to be said: conducting a difficult conversation never gets totally easy.
We all know that disagreements pop up now and again, so you’ll be tasked with sorting out a new issue at some point. Using the tactics presented in this article, you’ll be able to assess a situation, put your emotions aside, and plan for a positive outcome.