Business development 28 June 2017

Five ways to handle difficult conversations in small teams

dispute
If handled well, difficult conversations can benefit small teams

Businesses don’t just depend on the quality of their staff, they depend on them working well together. Here, dispute resolution consultant, Richard Peachey, provides some advice on how small team leaders can get the best from difficult conversations.

Despite more than a hundred years’ experience of working together in close proximity in office-style situations, we’re still learning how to have “good” conversations with co-workers.

Good conversations are those that are genuinely open, and based on a mutual sense of trust and an ability to admit our worries and vulnerabilities in order to get things done.

Instead, difficult conversations in business of all sizes are more often rooted in a need to present a professional front, or to assert an agenda. As a result, there’s what feels like a necessary and inevitable discretion, reticence and politics amongst small teams.

These are barriers to the day-to-day running of any operation. An inability to have good conversations leads to worse situations, the potential for awkwardness, poor decision-making, grudges and more formal complaints, as misunderstandings and grievances escalate.

Business leaders need to be able to handle difficult conversations, and not see them as something to be avoided for the sake of a temporary peace. A “clear air” culture should be created, where all team members feel able to talk through their issues in a reasonable way, and where people are grown-up enough to cope with difficult conversations.

It’s not just about avoiding conflict either. Good conversations in small teams are good for business. They’re good for encouraging new perspectives and innovation as a basis for a better working environment, better self-awareness, more positivity and a sense of personal motivation. Here are some tips on how to handle difficult conversations as a small business leader, or manager.

(1) Prepare

Actively decide a conversation is needed, and don’t be bounced into it by circumstances. Plan what you want to accomplish by asking yourself, “What do I need to talk about? What do I really want for myself, for staff, for the relationship between us?”

(2) Don’t assume

Ask exploratory questions and show a meaningful interest in what the employee thinks, believes, fears, and wants. Not only is curiosity a really strong working relationship building tool, it also gives you more information which will help with the problem-solving. Really listen to their side of the story, and let them know they have been heard and understood.

(3) Set out a clear purpose

If difficult conversations feel risky to the manager, they will be feeling risky to staff members too. Find something in it for them to talk about, as you should have a mutual purpose.

(4) Share responses, assumptions and beliefs

Recognise your version of events is composed of a mix of facts, fiction and assumptions, and try to separate what you know, what you believe, and what you are unsure of, before you open your mouth.

A leader who shares their assumptions and versions of events with others will be more clearly understood. Mistakes or misunderstandings will be illuminated before they take hold and become “facts”, and people will be more motivated to commit to a manager who is open, honest and trustworthy in this way.

(5) Don’t make it just about them

It’s usually very easy to see how the other person has contributed to current difficulties. It could be something they said, or something they did. Harder to spot is our own role. Once we give up the belief that the other person is completely responsible, we can start to see how we’ve added to the confusion and miscommunication.

Ask yourself: “How might I have contributed to this?” Talking about your contribution you immediately open up a dialogue because they won’t feel you’re there to attack them. This means they are more likely to hear you and engage with what you need to talk about.

When it comes to creating a clear air culture, it’s important to start by thinking about the values of your firm and the actual behaviours demonstrated by employees.

By focusing on developing so-called soft skills, the gap between values and behaviours in small teams will close. The more aligned the two are, the closer your organisation is getting to an everyday environment, where problem-solving is free-flowing and innovation is instinctive.

Business leaders have long thought about the importance of emotional intelligence, but they also need to start thinking about the role of “conversational” intelligence.

The framework for creating a clear air culture

Look at what happens when complaints and performance issues arise, and how they are handled by members of your team. There should be a level of consistency that helps to avoid more formal problems and the potential for resolving matters at the most informal level possible.

Direct more of your resources into supporting people, encouraging dialogue with one other and away from areas where conflicts have the potential to escalate. Ensure managers and business leaders have the skills to manage conflict constructively.

Encourage and train employees to have difficult conversations with each other and with their managers. For example, a conversation where an employee challenges a co-worker’s “banter”, which some might perceive as bullying, develops skills which can be expanded to include how that employee responds to difficult conversations with other staff members or customers.

Make sure there are consistent messages about what’s expected from staff in terms of encouraging good conversations, and make it clear what support and development roles are available.

Richard Peachey is a dispute resolution consultant for CMP Resolutions.

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