How to manage a difficult conversation.
It currently feels appropriate to talk about managing difficult conversations in the Covid-19 environment. Taking a pragmatic approach to the pandemic, the reality is that it could be around for a while; longer than perhaps we are willing to admit.
Before the pandemic, the subject was one that was always of interest in many business sectors; such as teachers and parents, local authorities and their service users, health service and patients, professional specialists and their clients, and managers in a wide range of business sectors with their colleagues and staff teams.
Within the workplace, there are often several themes that are mentioned as being the subject of a difficult conversation: poor performance, attendance, relationships with others, behaviour, or the first informal stage of a disciplinary process. In the current pandemic environment, the scope for difficult conversations has expanded dramatically, with people not wanting to return to work, but have been asked to, or people wanting to go back to work but can’t.
In addition, there is a wide range of challenging issues to be resolved associated with Health and Safety, PPE, new work routines and social distancing. A major issue on the horizon is downsizing, where a smaller number of ‘still employed’ staff will be expected to do more work to take up the slack of those who have left.
Accepting that the subject itself is not significant enough to involve HR, managers; supervisors and team leaders rarely have received any training in this subject. They feel under prepared, are nervous about the process, don’t enjoy what they perceive as negative conflict, are concerned about becoming un-popular, and feel it will risk damaging the work environment.
In terms of the actual process, managers are not aware of the need for structure to a meeting or how to prepare for it; they fear issues about the other person such as denial, hostility, rejection of another perspective. Often, the other person views the problem as ‘not theirs’, blaming the system, the process, the customers, managers, the organisation; anything but themselves.
The outcome of all of this is that the conversations are put off, postponed, ignored, or are hidden under the carpet. There are costs to the ‘pretend it’s not there’ approach. These show up as worry, anxiety, whispered conversations, distractions, loss of focus, conversations that skirt round topics and are essentially pointless. This all saps energy, and costs time and money.
It is worth stopping for a moment and considering that if managing a difficult conversation was as easy as having any ordinary conversation, it would happen quickly and painlessly, so that none of the above actually occurs. In addition, the likely reality is that relationships would be maintained, whispered conversations would be fewer, days off sick would be reduced, and effective and productive members of staff would be less likely to leave the organisation due to unnecessary fallouts in the office.
The succinct title of ‘managing a difficult conversation’ belies a reality that the actual skills associated with the task are more complex than are commonly realised. There are many useful models and acronyms available that serve to steer managers, leaders and individuals through the process. The structure of the RESOLVE model recognises that the issue of managing difficult conversations requires specific skills, and emotional intelligence. It also requires an understanding of the context in which the conversation has arisen, and knowledge of the communication process that needs to be followed, if it is to be successful.
So, RESOLVE serves as both a model and a methodology at the same time, since both are required. In essence, RESOLVE is orientated around work-based scenarios where a problem has arisen, a change is required, performance is not as good as expected, or a working relationship is not as productive as it could be – either between two separate individuals or two or more members of a team. It is not orientated towards the delivery of ‘bad’ or unfortunate news, such as bereavement – there are other models available that are more suitable for this particular circumstance.
There are a significant number of individuals and organisations which support the resolution of complex and difficult work-based conflicts that have occurred within an organisation, and which may have escalated. These issues may be resolved by mediation, or other structured processes such as tribunals or occasionally, through a judicial process. RESOLVE as a concept sits right at the start of these sorts of cases, and offers the opportunity for managers at all levels to manage a difficult conversation in a fair, meaningful and robust way so that situations do not escalate to the point where more formal and structured interventions are required.
A full and thorough examination of the RESOLVE approach leaves people understanding that the approach is neither hard nor soft, but is rooted in equality and fairness, balance and shared understanding. In getting to this point of understanding, people often have to let go of long held beliefs about the manner and intent of this sort of conversation, replacing toughness, structure and rigidity with empathy and a more open and balanced mindset. In this respect, it is most definitely not for everyone!
Many people who have attended the RESOLVE course recognise at some time in the overall learning process, that the approach, methodology, rationale and integrity associated with it extend far beyond simply having a difficult conversation in the workplace: aspects of the approach can be applied equally well to other aspects of life outside of work.
One of the most significant areas where the skills are transferable relates to that of building relationships, a skill that has the potential to help anyone reading this article. At the heart of the process is one of Stephen Coveys 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. Habit number two, ‘Begin with the end in mind’, relates to the final outcome that you want to achieve. A resolution to an issue is a given requirement. However, far more importantly, it focuses on the need to build bridges, strengthen ties, create links, and to add depth to the existing relationship. Consequently, it employs the ‘go slowly to go fast’ principle: this involves taking the time to do this well, which ensures you get to be where you want to be faster than if you just rushed in.
So many people don’t follow this advice and end up with long extended periods of conflict, where small trivial issues escalate, which then take a huge amount of time, effort and money to conclude: in these circumstances relationships are often broken to the point where they are irreparable. Again, the cost to businesses around the world of these situations is huge.
RESOLVE is an acronym, which stands for:
R- Research: Do all aspect of the necessary homework and preparation first!
E- Explain: Within the meeting – how the process will work. It is wrong to assume others know and understand the process: carried out well, it lays the foundations for success.
S- Suspend Judgement: You don’t know what you don’t know until you do. Start the process with a blank piece of paper.
O- Open minded: The presentation of different points of view WILL allow opinions to change in process: it leads to different levels of understanding. The key to success is to be open to receiving new information.
L- Listen: The need to recognise the difference between hearing and listening and the effect of active listening on the process – it is much misunderstood and undervalued.
V- Value: A difference in values are often at the root of disagreements. They need to be recognised and managed so that all people involve understand what is at stake and what needs to change in order to align the differences.
E-Evaluation: RESOLVE represents a process that starts before the difficult conversations is had, and well beyond its conclusion. However, at the end of the actual meeting, clarity about ‘next steps’, and of the effectiveness of the process is paramount. Practitioners of RESOLVE sit comfortably in the process of continuous improvement and lifelong learning.
The outcome of the RESOLVE process, in the very best case, is an agreement from both sides of the discussion about what to do in order to solve a problem or move a situation forward. The agreement is reached in an open and honest manner, it is phrased in a way that clarifies accountability, and ensures that if support is needed, it will be provided. In short, it draws upon the understanding that goal achievement is not the same as goal setting: it ‘nails’ down all aspects of who, what, when, where and how.
Equally useful and valuable is the worst case scenario, where an agreement is not reached. Skilled use of the RESOLVE model enables participants to look each other in the eye and recognise that an agreement was not reached. However, the process was useful, it was conducted professionally, it was fair and just, and most significantly, it laid the foundation for another conversation. This will build upon and develop the threads of the first. The participants know that a decision has not been reached, yet, but will be at some stage in the near future.
In both cases, simply embarking on a process to follow the RESOLVE process leaves a member of staff with an experience that will remain with them: the experience will be positive and will most likely influence how they behave and approach future discussions. Mastery of the RESOLVE process will also positively influence conversations that take place in a wide range of contexts. It will lessen the frequency of small office conflicts, and manage them when they do occur so they do not escalate into major disputes, which cost significant resources to sort out.