4 difficult conversation exercises any new manager can use when delivering bad news to employees

If you’ve been dreading having to have difficult conversations in your new role as manager, then rest assured you are most certainly not alone! Difficult conversations are something that we all want to avoid. But the truth is that difficult situations will occur in every single team, across every single organisation. These difficult situations rely heavily on difficult conversations as a means of either acknowledgement or resolution, making the ability to navigate those conversations an important part of your management skills arsenal

Whether it’s conflict arising as a result of having many different personality types in your team, behaviours and actions that don’t align with the business’ vision of success, or gaps in performance, motivation, or skill, there are lots of different reasons why you may have to have difficult conversations from time to time. 

You know this. You know you’ll not only need to be a part of ‘bad news conversations’, but actually lead them. This is a huge responsibility, and the board will almost certainly be watching to see how you handle things. While no one enjoys this aspect of the job, it is part and parcel of being a manager and can make or break your efforts to build a good team culture, since how you handle the bad news will shape how your team thinks, feels and behaves overall. 

It’s completely natural to feel nervous, and advisable to seek out tools to help you out. The good news is that these tools do exist in the form of difficult conversation exercises that you can use to prepare yourself.

Here are 4 of the best difficult conversation exercises to try out:

1. Talk to yourself

Talking to yourself may sound silly, but in having a conversation with yourself about the situation before facing your employee, you’re giving yourself an opportunity to ask a question that not many managers ask: Why is the thought of the conversation making you uncomfortable? What exactly is it that’s worrying you? Are you afraid of ruining a relationship you’ve worked hard to build? Are you worried about driving conflict, rather than resolving it, or are you afraid that you lack the skills to communicate effectively? 

It’s vital to understand your own feelings about the situation if you want to try and understand the feelings of others. By knowing what’s bothering you, it becomes easier to take measures to make yourself feel more comfortable, confident, and courageous, such as by signing up for leadership online courses to formalise your skills or role playing additional conversations.

2. Talk to someone else

One of the very best pieces of advice that new managers can take onboard is that the conversation you have with the person involved should look a lot like the conversation you’d have with someone else ABOUT that person and about that situation. For example, if you were to have a conversation about the situation with your organisation’s HR manager, you wouldn’t blame them for what’s happened; you’d be more likely to outline the situation, stick to the facts, and discuss possible resolutions. 

This is what a real life difficult conversation should look like. Facts and logic should override emotion and blame. Collaborating with HR can be hugely beneficial in helping you to separate the emotional side of the situation from the logical one. 

3. Role play

Many managers - and employees - break out in a cold sweat when they hear the words role play! But in this situation, role playing doesn’t necessarily mean mapping out the entire conversation from start to finish. It’s more about being able to anticipate what could happen in a range of possible scenarios, and picking out questions that your employee is most likely to ask. This gives you a chance to be prepared, and have the answers to these questions ready to offer. 

Role play does have a big role in anticipating scenarios as questions can arise as a natural part of each scenario. Questions are not always easy to determine simply from thinking about the situation from an outside perspective; you need to be involved in it. 

4. Word association

Have a quick think about what it is you want to say in the conversation, and note down some of the words that you’ve used. A word association game is a fantastic difficult conversation exercise that can help you keep things under control. Once you’ve written your list of words, jot down associated words and phrases, and how they make you feel. You may have planned to say that ‘Annika feels isolated’, but the word ‘isolated’ can have negative connotations… how might your employee react to this?

Instead, it may be more appropriate to say ‘Annika feels as though she is unable to participate or contribute’, which gets the message across without assigning blame. The words used may seem unimportant, but they communicate more than you may realise. 

It’s all about you

You may think that difficult conversations are about your team. They’re not. They’re about you. If you lack the courage and confidence to engage in difficult conversations, it’s possible that difficult situations may not be resolved, or may not be resolved in the way that you were hoping, and this can significantly affect the culture and performance of your team. Handling a challenging situation poorly can be more detrimental than the situation itself in terms of keeping your team happy and achieving your goals, so working on your own skills and communication is absolutely essential. 

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