Preparing for uncomfortable conversations

By Dr. Bill Howatt

How challenging are uncomfortable, emotionally charged conversations for you?

As leaders, we face uncomfortable conversations regularly at work. Whether it’s denying a vacation request, rejecting a schedule change, not approving a professional development request, or ending employment because a position has been eliminated, these conversations can range from being a minor inconvenience for the other person to a life-altering exchange.

They take a toll on us under the best of circumstances, and too often, we walk away regretting how they unfolded. Factor COVID into the equation, and the challenge becomes even greater. Our fight or flight response system has been on high alert for over a year now. This is exhausting, and it can put a strain on even the strongest relationships. For many of us- leaders and employees - unpleasant emotions are simmering just below the surface, and with little provocation, they can rise and derail an already difficult conversation.

Trust is a key piece of the puzzle. A Harvard Business Review survey found that 58% of people trust strangers more than their manager and only 42% trust their boss, suggesting that many leader-employee conversations - regardless of the topic - are at risk because of lack of trust.

However, this doesn’t need to be the case. You can take steps to manage emotions and improve your skills at moving through these unavoidable exchanges with a greater degree of trust and empathy.

  • Reserve judgment and be mindful of current circumstances - Try to enter the discussion without judgment and recognize that we are all under a great deal of stress right now. It is critical that you make every effort to manage them in a psychologically safe manner at any time, and particularly now, as we continue to navigate this crisis.
  • Build trust by becoming emotionally literate - If you struggle with unpleasant emotions and you have not taken any steps towards becoming more emotionally literate, there is a good chance you will continue to be challenged by uncomfortable conversations. In my last blog, I shared tips for building this skill and regulating emotions.
  • Keep your emotions out - When we are emotionally overwhelmed, we can sound short and sometimes even lash out. Work on managing your own feelings, and if you encounter an employee who is projecting unpleasant emotions, don’t take it personally, and don’t respond in kind. Reacting with anger to an angry employee is not helpful. This doesn’t mean you need to excuse poor behaviour; just stay calm and leave room for the other person to self-correct. Note, you should never tolerate abuse or aggression. If this happens, disengage, and implement the respectful workplace policy. However, giving an employee a chance to apply their emotional brakes is not unreasonable.
  • Label emotions - Take note of body language, tone, and words and if you start to observe that the other person is struggling emotionally, tell them what you’re picking up from them. In a non-threatening way, make a statement such as, “It seems to me you are frustrated. Is that right?” This will likely prompt the other person to do a self-check. Acknowledging emotions is an important part of self-regulation. It can help de-escalate the situation. Labeling is not about judging; it is about acknowledging unpleasant emotions.
  • Anticipate how the news will be received - Unwanted news can be upsetting. Be authentic and empathetic and listen. Don’t try to talk the other person into accepting what you’ve told them. Show them that they are important to you and that you understand by listening and giving them the space they need to process.
  • Give the other person the chance to be heard - It is normal for someone who is unhappy with a decision to want to be heard. Often, the emotional brain will run ahead, and it takes time for the cognitive brain to catch up. Allow extra time for conversations you anticipate will be difficult. Don’t rush. This shows respect to the other person and can go a long way toward building trust. If the employee wants to continue chatting and seems to be calming down as they talk, this is a sign that they trust you.

No one relishes delivering difficult news to an employee but when employees know that their leader cares about them, and that these decisions aren’t made lightly, they won’t fear reprisal and may be less likely to react. They may be more open to sharing their concerns and moving through the conversation in a healthy and trusting way.


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