Dealing with employee conflict– whether between coworkers, or between a manager and an employee– can be stressful. Oftentimes conflicts arise as a result of unresolved experiences of the past.
A recent example comes to mind where one employee accidentally banged into his colleague. The “injured” party had a severe reaction, mostly because there had been previous experiences with the “assaulter” that went unresolved. In this case, the “assaulter” was unaware he had banged into his colleague, as it was with his backpack, and not with his body. The “injured” person had an interaction with the “assaulter” a few weeks back, and left that interaction with the impression that his coworker does not like him. Fast forward to the accidental bang a few weeks later and there provides the explanation for his strong interaction. The “assaulter” did not understand the reason for the strong reaction. He was unaware of the impression he had made, and he was unaware his backpack hit his colleague. The manager is informed of the incident, and needed to bring both parties into his office to discuss the incident.
Before he did so, I provided him with some tools to equip him with handling the conversation. Handling difficult conversations requires skill and empathy, but ultimately, the courage to go ahead and do it. The more you get into the habit of addressing issues directly, the more adept you will become at it. While these situations can be uncomfortable, they have the potential to be constructive conversations, if handled properly. Here are ten tips to prepare you for your next difficult conversation:
1) Know where to begin: Some people put off having the conversation because they do not know where to start. The best way to start is with a direct approach. “John, I would like to talk to you about your attendance,” for example. Being upfront is the authentic and respectful approach.
2) Be clear about the issue: You need to reach clarity for yourself so you can articulate the issue in two or three succinct statements. If not, you risk going off on a tangent during the conversation.
3) Choose an appropriate time and place: Exercise care when deciding when and where to have the discussion. Find a time when you and the other person will not be rushed or feel compelled to attend to other matters.
4) Remind the employee that you have his/her best interest at heart: Position the information as something to work on for his/her own success. Remember the difference between coaching and criticism!
5) Prepare examples: Provide examples that confirm your assessment of their abilities. Share where they’ve done well; discuss areas of opportunity.
6) Describe impact: Describe for the employee the impact that changing his or her behavior will have from a positive perspective, and if applicable, describe the negative impact that is currently taking place.
7) Manage the emotions: It is your responsibility as a leader to understand and manage the emotions in the discussion. Anger can worsen an already difficult situation. Be mindful of preserving the employee’s dignity and treat them with respect, even when you do not agree with them.
8) Watch for cues in body language: In addition to active listening, engage in active observation. Much about a person’s attitude is conveyed through body language.
9) Be comfortable with silence: There will be moments in the conversation where silence occurs. Despite the need to fill the void with words, don’t rush to speak. The periodic silence in the conversation allows us to hear what was said and lets the message sink in.
10) Preserve the relationship: A leader who has high emotional intelligence is always mindful to limit any collateral damage to a relationship. It takes years to build bridges, and only minutes to blow them up.
11) Establish goals, reach agreement, and follow-up regularly!
In the situation with the accidental banging of the backpack, the manager did a fantastic job diffusing the emotions of both parties, explained the reason for the meeting, and set some ground rules for each person to tell his side of the story. At the end of the discussion, all parties agreed there were misunderstandings and erroneous assumptions that could have been addressed sooner. Both employees departed with a handshake, and an agreement to discuss any future issues in a calm manner. A terrific outcome for all parties involved!
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