5 tips to help HR professionals take the “difficult” out of “difficult conversations”

Posted on Fri, Sep 20, 2013 @ 13:09 PM

hr professionalKids, especially young ones, are connoisseurs of the “Tough Conversation.” Why? Because they don’t have to play by the rules. They’re honest—more specifically though, they can get away with being honest.

I can’t count the times I’ve been in a public space and overheard a child declare, “Mommy, that man looks like a woman,” or “Mommy, why does that woman have all those ugly tattoos?” all within earshot of the child’s hapless victim.

Adults, those of us in the HR profession…we don’t have it so easy. While we can’t promise to take the “difficult” entirely out of the equation, we do think that the following five tips will make difficult conversations less difficult.  

5 tips to help HR professionals take the “difficult” out of “difficult conversations”

Figure out what you want first
I once tried selling an old Fender guitar to a dealer. I knew what I paid for it, but when the shop owner asked me what I wanted for it, I went blank. When I asked him what he’d give me for it, the conversation ended. “I’m not going to make an offer without you telling me what you want for it,” he said. The lesson I learned from this experience directly ties into what I’m about to say about conversations in the workplace.

You can’t have a meaningful conversation if you don’t know what you want. You may have to think about this, write it out, or talk it through with a friend, but you should always have a road map in your head for what you want.

Be emotionally present
Commonplace knowledge about communication often suggests that we leave emotions outside the front door. But as Henry Cloud and John Townsend suggest in their book, How to Have That Difficult Conversation You've Been Avoiding, being present means “being in touch and in tune with our own feelings as well as those of the other person.”

In other words, being present means that you are giving the other person what you are asking him or her to give to you. As Cloud and Townsend put it, “You want the other person to be ‘there’ with you. That’s why you’re confronting the problem in the first place. So how can you be ‘there’ what you are having a conversation?”

Skip the blame game
Many conversations are difficult simply because we focus our energy in the wrong place: trying to figure out who is to blame. In their book, Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters, Douglas Stone and Bruce Patton put an interesting spin on the blame game. For them, talking about whose fault it is is a lot like talking about Truth: “it produces disagreement, denial, and little learning. It evokes fears of punishment and insists on the either/or answer.”

It’s true, no one wants to be blamed, especially when the blame has been unfairly assigned. Instead of spending time blaming others, Stone and Patton suggest that we focus our attention on why things went wrong and how we might correct them moving forward. The distinction between blame and contribution may be subtle, but learning to see the difference is key to disarming difficult conversations.  

Don’t presume that you understand the intentions of others
Conversations become difficult when we falsely presume that we know why others did what they did. You can’t read minds and even if you are an eyewitness to the incident under dispute, you still can’t decode the offender’s intentions. As Stone and Patton suggest, the implications of this are rather profound. “The truth is, intentions are invisible. We assume them from other people’s behavior. In other words, we make them up, we invent them. But our invented stories about other people’s intentions are accurate much less often than we think.” Intentions are complex and making unfounded assumptions about them is a surefire way to sour a healthy conversation.  

Do not split your attention
Most of us have had a spellbinding conversation. Maybe it was with a spouse, partner or friend. Recall how you felt in that conversation: the environment around you dissipated; you not only heard, but you felt what you were saying and what was being said. Most importantly, though, you were present. You weren’t fidgeting in your seat; you weren’t splitting your attention between taking phone messages or looking at your computer screen. Real conversations require you to be present, both mentally and physically.


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