Strategies to Navigate Difficult Conversations with Employees

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Difficult ConversationsNavigating difficult conversation is an essential skill healthcare leaders must possess to build healthy work cultures. Especially in healthcare, effective communication is the backbone of providing top-notch patient care and fostering a supportive work environment. We know that nobody actually enjoys having difficult conversations, and that doing so can be quite challenging. However, with practice and the right skills, these conversations can become more manageable. In this blog post, we will explore strategies specifically tailored for healthcare leaders to navigate difficult conversations, foster trust, and cultivate stronger relationships within their teams. By incorporating self-reflection, clarity, empathy, continuous feedback, and meaningful connections, healthcare leaders can create an environment that promotes collaboration and enhances patient outcomes.

5 Strategies to Navigate Difficult Conversations at Work

  1. Pausing for Self-reflection

Let’s start by taking a moment for some self-reflection. As healthcare leaders, you face unique challenges when it comes to difficult conversations. Before starting these conversations, you need to reflect on WHY you’re struggling to give feedback. It’s important to be aware of your own biases, assumptions, and emotional responses that may come into play. Take the time to identify any personal discomfort or concerns that could hinder open communication.

Ask yourself these questions:

Am I afraid I might make the situation worse?

I have a good relationship with this person. Am I afraid having this conversation will change that?

How can I communicate in a way that’s honest and respectful?

How am I going to preserve this relationship with my colleague/employee?

Is my goal to win an argument or build a relationship?

That last one is the most important. If you are trying to win an argument, your approach to the conversation will be much different. That approach will never build relationships. And that applies to both our work lives and our personal lives. Every conversation should really be about building and not tearing down or destroying. Because in the end, it’s the relationships we have with the people we work with – colleague or employee – that matter most.

By acknowledging and addressing these barriers, you can approach difficult conversations with empathy and a focus on constructive outcomes. Remember, these conversations are opportunities for growth and improvement, both individually and as a team.

  1. Communicate Clearly and Anticipate Their Response

What specific behaviors are you going to talk to them about that they might need to change? Maybe you notice in staff meetings they are abrasive when answering a co-worker. Maybe they don’t seem engaged, or they sit in the back of the room and roll their eyes. Chances are, they will respond in a similar way with you. Preparing ahead of time is key in communicating clearly. 

To prepare for difficult conversations:

    • Be clear on what outcome you want.
    • Identify specific behaviors or actions that need addressing.
    • Anticipate how they might respond.
    • Clearly articulate their specific behaviors, what expectations they aren’t meeting, and explain your concern and the consequences of their actions.
    • Offer support and guidance.

When you clearly communicate your expectations, concerns, and consequences of these behaviors, you are emphasizing the importance of addressing them while demonstrating a commitment to patient safety, quality care, and team cohesion. By understanding their potential reactions, you can better formulate your own responses and approach the conversation with a well-prepared mindset. Additionally, by offering support and guidance, you are assuring them that you are there to help them improve.

  1. Balance Empathy and Assertiveness

Healthcare leaders must strike a delicate balance between empathy and assertiveness when engaging in difficult conversations. Empathy allows us to understand the other person’s perspective, while assertiveness enables us to express our concerns and expectations clearly. Now, empathy is different than sympathy.

For example, let’s say you’re a staff nurse having lunch with your team in the lounge, and you see a veteran nurse attack a brand new nurse, while they are eating lunch alone.

Sympathy is turning to your colleagues and saying, “Man – it really stinks to be new. Glad it’s not me!

Empathy is getting up out of that chair and walking over to that nurse, sitting next to them, shaking their hand, and saying, “Hey, my name is___. I’ve been a nurse here for __ years. Come join us!” Or, “let’s grab a cup of coffee and I can tell you about this place.

Empathy is Sympathy in ACTION.

Remember, these conversations can be emotionally charged, so it’s essential to approach them with empathy. Take the time to understand and acknowledge the emotions and perspectives of your team members. At the same time, maintain assertiveness in communicating expectations, ensuring that patient care standards are upheld, and professional growth is facilitated. By finding this balance, healthcare leaders can foster an environment of trust, support, and collaboration.

  1. Create a Culture of Continuous Feedback by Building Trust

Establishing a culture of continuous feedback requires building trust within the team. If you have a lot of backbiting and unkindness in your department/organization, you can’t expect people to just readily accept feedback. Would YOU trust feedback from someone who criticizes you in public or talks about you behind your back? I wouldn’t either. We need to build trust.

As a leader, you can establish trust by:

    • Nurturing an environment where feedback is welcomed, valued, and encouraged.
    • Creating opportunities for open dialogue, regular check-ins, and constructive feedback sessions.
    • Leading by example by seeking input and actively listening to your team.
    • Encouraging peer-to-peer accountability

Peer-to-peer accountability is very important because it can’t always be on you, as the leader, to ensure that everybody is being held accountable. You would never get anything done! In the highest performing teams, everybody holds each other accountable. When you build a foundation of trust, your teams feel free to have honest and respectful conversations with each other.

  1. Build Meaningful Connections

Building meaningful connections with your teams is, to me, the glue that holds all of this together. Without meaningful connections, your teams will never see you as authentic. Authentic leaders forge strong relationships. Gallup agrees. According to Gallup, building relationships is a skill all great leaders possess.

Take the time to build relationships beyond the professional realm, demonstrating genuine care and concern for your team members. Show interest in their well-being, both personally and professionally. Simply asking team members how they are doing and offering support can go a long way in building strong relationships. By asking how YOU can help THEM shows that you have their back and speaks to the power of human connection.

For example, you have an employee that you’re rounding on (relational rounding – not patient) who’s behavior is concerning. You could say, “I’ve noticed some behavior that’s out of character with you lately, and it has me concerned about you both personally and professionally. Is everything all right on a human level? How are you doing?”

As Walt Whitman said, “Be curious, not judgmental.” By expressing curiosity instead of judgment and acknowledging the challenges they face, leaders inspire their teams to bring their human selves to work every day.

Incorporating these strategies will have a profound impact on your teams, patients, and the overall success of your organization. Embrace these strategies, approach conversations with empathy and clarity, and continue to foster an environment of open communication. By doing so, you’ll not only be able to navigate difficult conversations with confidence, but you’ll also strengthen team relationships, elevate patient care, and lead your organization to new heights.

If you’re struggling with bullying and incivility in your organization, contact us at [email protected].

We can help.

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