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How to Handle Challenging Workplace Conversations

  • December 30, 2019

Challenging workplace conversations are an inevitable part of the role of senior legal professionals.

Whether it’s a case of letting your Solicitor know they are not going to be considered for promotion this year, or a disciplinary meeting with a Fee Earner whose attitude has slipped recently, sometimes you will need to have a difficult conversation with a colleague.

In this article, we look at the steps you can take to ensure you are well prepared for challenging conversations, so that you can handle them in a calm and considered manner to achieve positive results.

Tackle the Issue

Nobody likes conflict.

It’s tempting to steer away from awkward discussions – but if you don’t deal with a situation, it can soon escalate into something much more severe. And that can damage your team and even your law firm.

Moreover, difficult conversations must be handled with competence. This ensures that the individual can learn from the experience and take away insights into their behaviour or the reasons behind a decision.

Set Aside Time

If you need to have a challenging conversation, it’s wise not to be tempted to catch them for a quick chat in the corridor. That can appear unprofessional, and it doesn’t show commitment to your team.

Instead, give the individual your undivided attention. Arrange a private meeting and make sure you allow yourself plenty of time to discuss the issue.

Plan What You Want to Say

Firstly, when planning your conversation, it’s crucial to nail down precisely what you want to say.

Consider the main points you want to make in the meeting and the key issues you need to address. Additionally, make sure you have all the facts and relevant documentation to hand.

Base your conversation on behaviour, NOT your judgements about an individual’s actions too.

When you are sure of what you want to say, you then need to think about how you’re going to say it.

Choose How You Will Address the Issue

It’s crucial to choose your words carefully; they will make all the difference as to how your comments are received.

For example, if you need to reprimand one of your Legal Secretaries for their weak team performance, you could explain how it affects everyone else in the team by holding up the information they need; and how that then impacts on productivity across the law firm as a whole.

Explain how by playing a more collaborative role, they can ensure that procedures are timely, creating more positivity across the whole team and creating stronger bonds.

Stick to the Facts

This is an important meeting, so there’s little point in spending time skirting around the main issue with small talk. Getting straight to the point is critical – and the chances are the person you are talking to already knows the fundamental premise for this meeting and will also want to deal with the issue.

If you are referring to behaviour, it’s vital you stick to the facts. So, give specific examples so the person can recognise where they went wrong, or why something is or is not going to happen.

Stay Professional

Resorting to accusations, or becoming emotional, will not help you handle a challenging conversation well.

So, it’s vital to remain professional and keep on track. Be direct and aim to deal with the matter using impersonal and positive language wherever possible.

Removing personality from the conversation will enable you to stay focused and able to bring the discussion to a favourable outcome. This will allow you and your team member to move forward positively, without becoming emotional.

Show Empathy

Of course, while remaining professional is paramount, that doesn’t mean you’re not human. A good leader shows empathy – it demonstrates you are an understanding and compassionate leader who wants the best for your team.

Whether you are dealing with a disappointed legal executive who hasn’t made the grade to senior level, or a disruptive colleague, your conversation should demonstrate understanding and empathy.

For example, your disengaged litigation solicitor may have problems outside of the office, or be suffering from stress with a large caseload – and while that may not excuse their behaviour, it’s essential to give them the chance to tell you their side of the story.

Be Willing to Listen

In addition to showing empathy, active listening is a critical part of leadership. So, be prepared to allow time for the individual to respond to what you are saying and listen to their comments.

If someone is disappointed in finding out they have not been put forward for promotion, they may want to discuss with you the reasons why or find out what their options are going forward.

On the other hand, if it’s a disciplinary, or a conversation about behaviour or output, the individual may want to tell their side of the story. Remember, you may not have all the facts to hand in an issue, despite your preparation, so allow them to speak and put their point across.

Provide Solutions

A challenging conversation isn’t just about airing our grievances or giving bad news – it needs to be constructive.

So, finally, concluding your conversation should show the individual the ‘What next?’ steps.

Your meeting should have covered situations and behaviour, how to move on from that and clearly indicate that a line has been drawn.

No-one wants to think something like this will hang over them, so ending your discussion on a positive note will enable you both to move forward successfully.

Your conversation should enable them to understand that you are investing in their future by helping them be the best they can be.

Creating a positive scenario as the outcome for change provides psychological safety for the individual, enabling them to see a goal they can work towards and helping them understand the point of the conversation is to achieve a way forward.

Next Steps

If you’re reading this article because you are looking to develop your legal team, call one of the Clayton Legal team on 01772 259 121 and let’s have a conversation to explore your options.

About Clayton Legal

Clayton Legal has been partnering with law firms across the country since 1999 and during that time has built up an enviable reputation for trust and reliability. We have made over 5,000 placements from Partners to Legal Executives, Solicitors to Paralegals and Legal IT Personnel to Practice Managers.

If you are building your legal team or looking for your next career move, we can help. Call us on 01772 259 121 or email us here.

If you would like to know more about recruiting trends in the legal sector this year, download our latest guide here.

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