While technical skills shortages are well known in the workforce, companies are also experiencing a gap in soft skills like communication, creativity, collaboration, critical thinking, and advanced leadership. According to a survey by Adecco Staffing USA, 44 percent of executives feel that a lack of soft skills is the biggest proficiency gap in the U.S. workforce.

What’s the most important soft skill today that matters to your company’s reputation? It’s your employees’ ability to effectively conduct and manage difficult conversations at work. This could be giving performance feedback, telling an employee their job has been eliminated, or discussing a complaint with a customer. If done clumsily or without care and consideration, these situations can become an even bigger issue for companies to manage.

In my 20+ years in Human Resource Management and Leadership Coaching, I have helped supervisors and employees at public and private companies manage difficult conversations more effectively. Based on my experience, I developed my latest Udemy Course: Difficult Conversations at Work Made Easier.

Difficult conversations that aren’t done well can backfire with larger repercussions to your company’s reputation—whether it’s a “tell all” blog and employee review on Glassdoor that impacts hiring or a customer review or video clip that hurts your sales. The ability for your managers and employees to conduct difficult conversations well has never been more critical. But how can you teach your employees to do this successfully?

Here are three things you can do to help your employees navigate difficult conversations.

1. Give employees enough time to prepare

People often rush to have a difficult conversation because they just want “to get it over with.” While it’s important to not wait too long once a problem is discovered, trust can be destroyed and situations can blow up if employees don’t think through how to manage these conversations professionally. Before engaging in a difficult conversation, employees need to develop a strategy, including an informal script of what they plan to say and the potential questions that could arise from the other party. It’s important to understand the background and individual circumstances for each situation, sort out the facts from fiction, and identify any skill development issues contributing to the problem.

Once your employee has prepared what he or she plans to say, they must also carefully consider the timing of the conversation. Here are some things to take into account:

2. Accept emotions and strive to maintain calm

Employees need to manage their own emotions as well as be empathetic to the feelings of the “receiver” of the difficult conversation. The first step is to honestly acknowledge their feelings about the challenging topic. Whether it’s a service rep speaking to an upset customer or a manager giving feedback to an employee, all sorts of emotions can be stirred up: nervousness, anger, worry, guilt, or self-righteousness. Sweeping these emotions under the rug is never the best approach as they can come back to haunt employees at unpredictable times, and people may find themselves reacting in ways they wish they hadn’t.

Managing one’s emotions also puts the employee in a much better frame of mind to respond to whatever feelings arise from the other party. Understanding the need to be open and to accept emotions that surface, while at the same time listening calmly and carefully is an advanced skill that can be developed over time.

3. Strike a balance between the business outcome and relationship

Often people focus too much on the business outcome or the bottom line, neglecting to also show due care and consideration about the relationship with the customer or employee. If customers or employees get the message that “they don’t matter” and it’s only about getting the job done, trust and goodwill will erode quickly. On the other hand, managers and employees can also focus too much on maintaining a positive relationship and avoid giving constructive feedback. Neither scenario is in the best interest of the customer, employee, manager, or the organization.

Organizations need to teach employees to strike a balance between managing a positive business outcome and a positive relationship. This can be accomplished by training your employees on how to communicate better and effectively deliver negative feedback. Organizations can also build a step-by-step process for employees to implement and manage difficult conversations more independently.

My Udemy for Business course provides a 6-step process on how to manage difficult conversations at work. The course includes a checklist to help your employees apply what they learn to their own situations. For more information, see my Udemy Course: Difficult Conversations at Work Made Easier.

Page Last Updated: February 2020

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