Difficult conversations in the workplace are, unfortunately, a common occurrence. I don´t believe people necessarily start out wanting to be difficult however. Sometimes employees are put on the defensive and any other stance is nearly impossible. But there are ways to manage these problematic exchanges. Whether you´re delivering bad news, giving a negative performance evaluation, or simply letting people know that the direction on a certain project is changing communicating difficult subject matter can-and does-result in an emotionally-charged conversation. People say things they later regret and sometimes the damage is permanent.
Still, it is possible to learn how to manage difficult conversations so that people´s feelings are spared and the company´s best interests are put in the spotlight. You´ve heard it before and I will say it again: it shouldn´t be personal. All too often, though, it gets very personal. But you have some control over that. Here´s an example: if you (and I´m talking about your employees, too, because you can influence them by your own behavior as well through some formal training) find yourself getting into a heated discussion and the other person goes on the attack, you have every right to distance yourself from that kind of abuse. Sometimes, simply telling the other person that the tone and words being used are not acceptable. It´s a little like talking to a child who´s in the midst of a tantrum. (I´m stilling experiencing that here, so I know what I´m talking about!). And at that point, you need to excuse yourself and say in a calm tone something about the fact that you´re willing to listen but only when the person can talk to you in a calm and respectful manner. Of course that might make the individual even angrier, but stay the course. Sometimes we forget that we have the right to be spoken to in a professional manner. I don´t think there´s anything wrong with letting people know.
Another tip is to step into the shoes of the person to whom you are speaking. Sometimes we get ourselves into trouble because we have no clue where the other person is coming from. To make matters worse we refuse to even acknowledge this person´s point of view. That´s a mistake when it comes to turning difficult conversations into collaborative exchanges. You´re not the only one who has bad days and chances are there´s a lot we don´t know about each other. Maybe someone´s just gotten some really disturbing news regarding the health of a loved one. That´s not always something we share with co-workers. Also, sometimes we do say things we shouldn´t-in the heat of moment, when we´re put on the defensive, and in other unfortunate circumstances. That´s when a little forgiveness and humanity can go a long way.
Managing difficult conversations has a lot to do with managing emotions-yours and the person you´re speaking with. It´s really easy to let go and tell someone how you really feel, but once it´s out, especially if you follow it up in writing, it´s out, never to be taken back again, even after a big round of apologies. If you have to script out your conversation (at least your side of it), then by all means take the time to do so. You will be happy and perhaps relieved that you made the investment.