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From time to time, all veterinary managers, directors, and owners face difficult conversations in the workplace.

Whether it’s about poor performance, behavior, or something else, these tricky chats can be uncomfortable for all involved. 

Because of this, many leaders put these conversations off in the hopes they’ll resolve themselves. But newsflash – this is rarely the case (sorry!). Procrastination can actually exacerbate the situation, especially if the conversation is about behavior at work. 

But by adopting the right techniques and mindset, you can approach difficult conversations like a true pro, reducing discomfort for all involved.

How to Approach Difficult Conversations

1. Get into a Good Mental State

Before taking on tough conversations, get into a good mental state. This is not always easy – especially when you’re stressed or upset. But ideally, you want to approach tricky conversations with your rational brain switched on, rather than your limbic brain. 

2. Don’t Label Difficult Conversations as ‘Bad’

Most people don’t enjoy confrontation. Whether this is because of traumatic past experiences, or because of a fear of upsetting others, there can be a lot of trepidation in the run-up to ‘big chats’.

But instead of looking at difficult conversations as inherently negative, look at them from a positive perspective. 

Most of the time, tough chats are necessary. Yes, they may not be terribly pleasant, but if not dealt with, the underlying issues that triggered the conversation in the first place will persist. It’s much better to lean into this pain and address it than then let something boil away until you or someone else on the team explodes!

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3. Prepare a Short Script Outline

When people are nervous, they can say things they don’t mean. To avoid this, write down the main points you want to convey in advance of a tricky conversation.

You don’t have to write an essay – just a rough framework of what you want to cover. Keep your language clear, concise, and neutral as to avoid sounding judgemental.

4. Practice Empathy

Some conversations are harder on others than on yourself. Dismissals, for example, can be incredibly difficult. 

So when you’re dealing with these situations, be compassionate. It may be awkward, but by putting yourself into someone else’s shoes you can better understand their viewpoint and position.

If you’re talking at someone, rather than with them, you’re not being empathetic. Monologues are one-sided affairs best left to Shakespearean actors on stage at the Globe.

5. Be Solution Oriented

A conversation is only productive if you come up with a solution at the end. But this is quite hard if you don’t have a sense of what this might look like beforehand. 

During difficult conversations, if possible, work with the person you are speaking with to come up with a solution at the end of the chat. This helps drive employees or clients to act on the advice.

6. Be Open to Feedback

A conversation goes two ways – so if you’re dishing out feedback, the person you’re speaking to is entitled to do the same.

This can be uncomfortable for managers or practice owners, but incredibly productive if given and taken well. Listening to feedback also signals to others that you’re listening, and willing to compromise if necessary. A crucial part of an empathetic and trusting relationship.

One thing to note is that this does depend on circumstance. If you’re having a performance meeting to discuss a serious shortcoming, for example, then this is perhaps not the time for the person you’re speaking to give feedback. (Unless of course there is a system issue contributing to the performance issue – like substandard equipment). If you’re having a general chat about an interpersonal conflict, however, honest feedback from both sides can aid in conflict resolution.

7. Consider the Ways You Deliver Feedback

The way you deliver feedback is really important. Not every person you speak with is going to take it constructively, especially if they have a hard time separating their self-worth from their jobs.

Aim to be honest, but sensitive. If you find yourself listing off things that you don’t like, then they’re probably not going to go away from that conversation feeling very empowered. Good feedback has several properties:

  1. It’s delivered when it is most needed (when the issue is current – not six months later). 
  2. It’s delivered with the intent to improve the person’s performance. 
  3. It’s clear. 
  4. It offers clarity about what is expected in order to improve. 

None of these things requires the person giving feedback to be mean. 

8. Don’t Allow Bad Feelings to Fester

Ideally, all difficult conversations would end with a perfect resolution. But in reality, this is not always going to be the case. 

People deal with difficult news in different ways, and their reactions may be delayed. Some people may not be able to fully express themselves, and hold on to resentment even after the air has cleared. You should be aware of this, and make sure you’re checking up even after the fallout has happened. 

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Conversation Do's

  • Pace yourself: When people are nervous they tend to speak quickly and trip over their words. To communicate effectively, pace yourself and speak slower than feels natural.
  • Prepare yourself beforehand: Get yourself into a good mindset before difficult conversations. Perhaps schedule it first thing to get it over with, or after a lunch or a break.
  • Speak privately: Sensitive subjects should be breached privately, especially if it may upset the person you are speaking to.
  • Take a short break: If things get very emotional, perhaps adjourn to a later day.

Conversation Don'ts

  • Talk at people, rather than to them: This is not only rude but also a missed learning opportunity on your part.
  • Become emotional: No matter what’s gone down, work is a professional setting and difficult conversations should be as such. 
  • Avoid the issue: Burying your head in the sand will only exacerbate problems, not extinguish them.

The Bottom Line

Difficult conversations aren’t fun, but they are necessary from time to time. Leaders who learn how to have such conversations with grace and compassion will be equipped with the ability to nurture high trust relationships in and out of the practice. 

For more advice on how to communicate in practice check out this article here.

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