Difficult workplace conversations: the best strategies for managing them

29 July 2015 -

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CMI’s own Petra Wilton says managers need to remember to T.A.L.K. when approaching that worrying difficult conversation

Matt Scott

Difficult workplace conversations are taking a heavy emotional toll on business leaders, according to new CMI research.

Surprisingly, the research found that Brits find it harder to ask their boss for a pay rise than dump a partner, and also revealed some interesting insights into the psychological impact of an impending difficult conversation.

Two-thirds of the 2,000 workers surveyed said they were stressed or anxious if they knew a difficult conversation was coming, while 11% said they suffered from nightmares or poor sleep in the build-up to a difficult work conversation.

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What are the five main causes of fear?

  1. Not knowing how the other person will respond – 43%
  2. Not being able to get a point across clearly – 31%
  3. Being in a confrontational situation – 29%
  4. Getting upset or emotional – 29%
  5. The other person getting upset or emotional – 21%

Despite the prevalence of such conversations in the workplace, 80% said they had had no formal training on how to tackle them.

As a result, 43% of senior managers admit to losing their temper and shouting when placed in a difficult conversation, while 40% have admitted to panicking and telling a lie.

The survey also revealed that 57% of respondents said they would do almost anything to avoid a difficult conversation; and 52% said they would rather put up with a negative situation at work than have to talk about it.

Wilton said that organisations needed to address these difficulties head-on as such issues affect all employees.

“At CMI we want to help the UK’s workforce to feel calm, and in control,” she said. “That’s important whether you’re negotiating a pay rise with your boss, or talking to a colleague about their performance not hitting the mark. Managers are the lynchpin of so many businesses that they are often at the centre of these discussions.

“And it’s not just the most junior or newest managers we want to help. This is an issue that cuts across all areas and levels of business.”

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Remember to TALK

To help managers deal with difficult conversations in the workplace, CMI has come up with a mnemonic to help business leaders navigate such meetings with their staff – TALK.

“It’s scandalous that so many people would rather be miserable at work than face a difficult conversation,” Wilton said. “This reluctance to talk things through not only has a negative impact on individuals, but can quickly affect wider team morale. That’s why CMI is here to help. Our top tips are easy to remember using the mnemonic TALK:

T – Think about framing how you think about the conversation differently. Don’t label it as ‘difficult’. It may be about a tricky subject but, by suggesting solutions or alternatives, you can focus on constructive outcomes 

A – Always use clear, simple and neutral language. Refer to specific examples and facts 

L – Listen to what the other person is saying and hear their point of view. Show you care about how they see things

K – Keep the focus on the issue, not the person

“By remembering to ‘TALK’ everyone can have more constructive conversations at work, whether you’re the boss, or a brand new manager.”

Want to find out what type of conversationalist you are? Take CMI’s Conversationalist quiz to identify how you normally approach difficult conversations and find out what you could be doing differently.

And don’t forget to join the conversation on Twitter: use the hashtag #difficultconversations and keep up-to-date by following @InsightsCMI and @CMI_managers 

All data is taken from a One Poll survey of 2,000 UK respondents run between 11th and 13th May 2015.

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