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Managing difficult interactions and situations at work better

Managing difficult interactions and situations at work better

So many of my clients can recall times when they had to manage a difficult or unpleasant situation at work – like making a person redundant, or taking them through a disciplinary procedure – and the wheels came off, despite their best efforts.

Has this happened to you? If you wished you’d had some strategies in place to ensure a better outcome, this article will be helpful for you!

Careful handling is required

When someone experiences a crisis in their career – like losing their job or facing a disciplinary – it can trigger a storm of negative emotions that batter their self-worth and wreck their work identity.

These feelings are perfectly normal. But if the situation is handled badly, it can be the difference between someone letting go of the negative emotions and moving on in a positive direction, or holding on to them and getting dragged down into an emotional quicksand that’s very difficult to climb out of.

I recently had a client who was struggling to get back into employment.*Morag had been made redundant 3 years earlier, but was still harbouring so much resentment about the way she’d been ‘let go’, she’d lost all sense of the bigger picture. Not only had her anger clouded her personal life, it had negatively affected her interview performance too.

Morag’s bad experience was making her ‘stuck’ – and this was preventing her from progressing in her career.

So how can you make sure you’re the helping hand pulling someone out of the quagmire, rather than pushing them in deeper?

Escaping the quagmire

To answer this question, we first need to understand what’s going on in our brains when we respond in a certain way to a particular set of circumstances.

A useful tool for doing this is the Language and Behavioural (LAB) Profile. The LAB Profile uses 14 different patterns to describe a person’s motivation and behaviour in given situations.

When someone reacts emotionally to a stressful or unpleasant situation, and can’t move on after an appropriate length of time, they are in what’s called a ‘Feelings’ pattern.

Being in a Feelings pattern can affect their sleep, their concentration, and their ability to function. Just like Morag, they can become so zeroed in on how angry and miserable they are, they end up not being able to see the wood for the trees.

A better place for them to land would be in a ‘Choice’ pattern. This is where they experience the sadness, the anger, the shame, and so on, but are able to put these feelings behind them and move forward in a positive frame of mind. It’s important to be aware of how our language and behaviour can influence whether someone ends up in a Feelings or Choice pattern.

For example, having to manage a high-pressured, stressful situation can put us in a ‘Thinking’ pattern – where we cordon off our emotions to make it easier for us to cope with the job we have to do. However, when we’re in a Thinking pattern, we can come across as indifferent and lacking empathy – which is only likely to make a difficult situation worse.

As a manager, there’ll be many times in your career when you’ll find yourself having to handle difficult situations. So let’s take a step back and think about what you could do differently next time.

  1. Watch your words

You might not be aware of how much power your words wield at times like these, so it’s important you pay close attention to them.

If you’re in a Thinking pattern, you may find yourself being overly formal and using cold, factual language, such as ‘Your services are no longer required.’ But just stop for a moment and think about how dehumanising that sounds – it can make someone feel like an unimportant ‘thing’ rather than a human being.

Instead, you need to adapt your language and behaviour to be more empathetic. For example, if you’re making someone redundant, acknowledge their contribution to the business, praise their achievements, and explain the company’s financial reasons behind the redundancies so they understand that it’s not personal.

Sometimes, it’s not what you say but what you don’t say that can leave people feeling bruised – as Google recently discovered when it sacked thousands of workers via an impersonal email that was described as ‘cold’ and ‘insensitive’ and left many of their employees’ questions unanswered. Those affected later took to social media in their droves to complain about their poor treatment – not a good look for any business.

2. Listen to their words

If someone’s upset and wants to talk about how they’re feeling, it’s important that they’re listened to. So give them your full attention (no looking at your phone), don’t interrupt, and use non-verbal cues to encourage them, such as smiling and nodding your head.

Listen carefully to the words they use and try to mirror them to make them feel that they’ve been heard and understood – if they say ‘I’m upset’, you could say ‘I understand that you’re upset …’.

‘Deep listening’ – listening consciously and carefully – allows us to better understand what’s motivating the other person in a particular situation. We can then communicate with them more effectively to achieve a positive outcome.

Going back to the LAB Profile, a person who’s motivated to move away from what they don’t want is in an ‘Away From’ pattern. They will talk about problems, obstacles and things they don’t want to happen. If you respond to them with goal-focused language, such as ‘What we want is a solution’ (a ‘Towards’ pattern) it can make the other person feel that you don’t ‘get them’ and that you haven’t acknowledged their worries and concerns.

I recently coached a senior manager who was baffled as to why one of his direct reports burst into tears in a meeting. She had come to him to talk about problems she was experiencing with a project (‘Away From’). He was so busy thinking about a solution (‘Towards’) that he’d failed to hear and address her concerns. Instead, he should have focused on the issues she’d raised, and used ‘Away From’ language (‘Yes, I can see that’s a problem …’) to show he had heard and understood her.

3. Avoid ‘catching’ negativity

Did you know that emotions can be contagious? Think about when someone smiles at you and you smile back – you immediately feel happier. But the same can happen in reverse.

An example of this is when a person you’re dealing with becomes angry or upset and lashes out. Your response might be to get angry too, and to say things you shouldn’t or don’t mean – which is likely to make everything a hundred times worse.

To protect yourself from this emotional contagion, take a step back and try to see things from the other person’s perspective.

If they’ve just lost their job, all kinds of thoughts are likely to be racing through their minds – What did I do wrong? Why me? How will I pay my bills? How will I tell my family? Often these emotions – anxiety, panic, shame – will be expressed as anger.

Once you put yourself in the other person’s shoes, you’ll be better able to change your mindset to a more empathetic and compassionate one. This will help to calm things down and lead to more positive outcomes for everyone.

4. Provide a lifeline

As well as adapting your language and behaviour, it’s important to provide plenty of emotional support when someone’s going through a career crisis – this might take the form of coaching, or outplacement services if the person has lost their job.

Here are some practical ideas to help you do this:

  • Practising self-kindness: These days we keep hearing the mantra to ‘Be kind’ to others, but practising self-kindness is important too.
    Action: If you hear the other person talking themselves down and using negative language, such as ‘I’m not good enough’ or ‘It’s my fault’, ask them if they’d ever say those things to a friend or loved one who was in the same position. And encourage them to be kind to themselves by getting them to recognise their talents, skills and achievements.
  • Setting daily goals: When we’re in a negative frame of mind, we tend to fixate on all the things that have gone wrong and that we need to avoid, rather than moving forward.
    Action: To help counteract these fatalistic thoughts, help them to focus instead on where they’d like their career to go, and to then plan one thing each day to help them get there. This could be some extra training, or making a new contact in a company or industry they’d like to work in.
  • Challenging negative thinking: Understanding why we experience a negative emotional response can help us to separate ourselves from what we’re feeling and to view our emotions at arm’s length. This can then help us to let those negative emotions go.
    Action: Tell the other person to write down all the negative thoughts they’re having, and then to ask themselves whether these feelings are accurate, what their beliefs behind them are, and whether they’re really worth it when they could be focusing on what exciting possibilities lie ahead.
  • Becoming more positive: Positive thinking can bolster self-confidence, making us more ready to embrace new opportunities.
    Action: Ask the other person to make a list of all their achievements, both in and out of work. If they can’t think of any, they can ask friends or colleagues, as often other people can see things in us that we’re blind to. Then get them to add all the activities they like doing and that they have a talent for. This kind of thinking will help to move them from a negative mindset to a more positive one.

I hope you’ve found my suggestions useful, but if you’d like more guidance or advice, please do get in touch. As a Career Management Coach and Mentor I provide professionals with outplacement, career development and communication coaching to increase influencing skills and improve the way they manage difficult interactions at work.

John Scott (UK Service Operations Manager) shares his experience…

“Katherine is a great career coach; she shares her insight and experience in a way that is inspiring and real. The understanding of what motivates me using the LAB Profile was a real game changer. I now know how to influence my colleagues, and it continues to have a real impact on my working life. I have gone from a manager who was sometimes frustrated at not being able to get my ideas over to senior managers, peers and my team, to a manager who has a signature voice in meetings and a very good rapport with senior managers.”

*Not her real name