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BLOG: Managing Difficult and Challenging Conversations

Unfortunately, from time to time, all managers find themselves in a position where they must have a difficult conversation with a staff member, parent or even Ofsted/CIW.  They are not easy and can be very emotional for all those involved.  Of course, the ideal scenario is that you pick up little niggles early and can nip them in the bud before they escalate.  The reality, however, is that it is not always possible.

Many years ago, I became a manager by accident when I was asked to be the chairperson of the local preschool.  I was approached to take the role because of my early years’ knowledge rather than my management skills.  In this role I quickly had to deal with difficult and challenging conversations.  In the early days I did not always deal with these conversations well, but I did learn a lot from them!

I was naïve and clumsy.  I did most of the talking, often simply telling others what they need to do differently or change and did very little listening.  Whilst my approach sometimes resulted in a change in behaviour or performance it was often only a short-term change and rarely was the impact long lasting.  Sometimes they even created further difficulties with the staff members becoming resentful or angry.

I have always been a reflective about my professional skills and when I thought about these conversations, I quickly began to understand that I needed to make some changes to my style.  I realised that during these conversations the person I was talking to was showing closed, defensive body language, that they weren’t really engaging with the conversation (probably because I wasn’t letting them!) and it was likely that they were agreeing to my suggestions simply get out of the room and end the conversation.  I knew this wasn’t effective and I could see that the changes were not long lasting.  I also knew that I wanted these conversations to be collaborative, constructive, and helpful.

I started to consider my own style and to consider ways that I could develop and hone my skills.  I started to think and research challenging conversations and good leadership skills.  I decided that key to me developing and improving my skills was to ensure that I had a solid foundation on which to build.  This led me to taking a recognised level 3 qualification in leadership and management, which has inspired to me to further read and research about leadership and managing a team, always looking for ways to review, reflect and develop my skills and has helped to achieve a successful professional career at management level for over 15 years.

Now, when preparing for those difficult or challenging conversations, I always consider the following:

  • Make sure that I am clear about the issue(s) I wish to discuss and the outcomes I want to achieve.  I make sure that I share these with the participants prior to the conversation to allow them time to also prepare
  • Make sure I am well informed about the topics for discussion.  If it is an incident that is being discussed, I make sure that I have spoken to everyone involved or present to get a clear picture from various perspectives and have gathered all the facts.  If it is conversation about making a significant change, I make sure that I can clearly explain the reasons why the change is necessary and can justify them with research, facts and figures
  • Make sure that we have plenty of time to set aside for the conversation and that we have a private, comfortable space where we won’t be interrupted

When it comes to the conversation:

  • I open the conversation by re-stating what needs to be discussed, what the problem or challenge is and why it is important.  I also ensure that everyone is clear about the anticipated outcome
  • I then invite the participants to share their thoughts and feelings, and acknowledge what they are telling me.  Most importantly I listen, listen, listen! 
  • At intervals I restate what has been said to ensure I have understood correctly
  • I may ask questions to clarify points or gain more information, but I make sure that I am using open ended questions that encourage conversations
  • I ask the participants what they feel the way forward is, what suggestions they may have to resolve the situation, what support they need etc, acknowledging their suggestions
  • I will again re-state the expected outcomes and will work with the participants suggestions, along with my own suggestions to agree a way forwards
  • At the end of the conversation, I then summarise what we have discussed and agreed

Keeping these points in mind helps me to ensure the conversation are effective and to re-focus them if the go off at a tangent or become emotional. 

The more conversations of this type that you do, the easier they become.  You will also be surprised how much easier they are when the other participants feel included and valued within the conversation.  In conclusion prepare well, take your time, be clear about the intended outcomes, listen carefully to and value what is and isn’t being said, ensure understanding at appropriate intervals and keep returning the outcomes to ensure the conversation stays on track.

Good luck!

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