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Five Signposts Through a Difficult Conversation

When asked what their most difficult task is, many managers say that it is dealing with people whose personal habits affect their work. In fact, a lot of those surveyed regard these as "no-go" areas and either ignore them or hope they will go away by themselves. But wishful thinking is not managerial thinking. To face up to personal employee habits that may upset customers or colleagues, team leaders need to have a strategy, a plan, and the skills to confidently know how to put things right.

Difficult Conversations: A 5-Point Plan

The following plan can be applied to any difficult conversation with an employee whose habits need to be changed. These include employees with unpleasant personal habits, such as poor personal hygiene, as well as employees with attitude problems.

1. It's Only Difficult If You Think It Is

Drop the idea that this will be a "difficult" conversation. Look at it in terms of a performance issue. Focus on the desired outcome which is always to bring the person up to the standards required of everyone. Remember that you have the assertive right to raise the issue if it is something that affects you or the people you are responsible for. You don't have to justify, explain or excuse yourself.

2. Even When It's a Personal Issue, Don't Make It Personal

Many "difficult" situations arouse strong emotions in people which in turn make the exchange appear personal. The only feeling you should have is a desire to help the other person. If you are feeling angry, anxious, or embarrassed, stop. Connect your head to your heart. Discuss what the person is doing and what they can do differently. This is not about who they are.

3. Ease Your Way In

In any conversation that deals with personal issues, it is best to ease your way in while not misleading the person about the subject under discussion. One good route into the personal is to start with cliches, such as "How's things going?", then to move on to facts, proceed to their views, and finally to how they feel. Do this without skirting around the issues or trying to sneak the issue in under the guise of something else.

4. Link Your Feedback to a Business Issue

If you are the team leader, you need to relate everything in the conversation to business issues, eg "your appearance (manner; hair style; hygiene; grooming; attitude) isn't what our customers' expect from a business like ours". While they may want to explain why they are behaving as they are, "why" is not what it's about. Acknowledge their reasons, but don't go there. For you, it's more about "what" - what they are doing and what they can do differently.

5. Have a Neutral Spot Where You Can Both Go If Things Become Awkward

If people become defensive, it is likely that you've hit a raw nerve. It's at this stage that you need to back off by going to a neutral third spot where you can both look at the behaviour dispassionately. Don't challenge them by saying something like, "Your personal hygiene needs to be improved". Instead, say something like, "Let's try to figure out why you and I see this issue differently".

Difficult Conversations: You Can Succeed

Difficult conversations are unavoidable in the workplace but, given the right approach and the right skills, they can be managed. You should aim to put emotions, stress, and personal issues aside and bring behaviour, performance, and the business centre-stage. Keep your composure, be compassionate, and be determined to create a successful outcome.