How do I speak to someone about a sensitive issue?
It is important to have a conversation regarding a sensitive issue, even if it is uncomfortable. Speaking to someone regarding a sensitive issue is a positive thing – critical feedback can help an employee improve and develop, and the discussion can create space for people to express pent-up emotions and feelings.
On the other hand, if you fail to address a sensitive issue, it can lead to further complications as the issue is unlikely to resolve itself and may even reoccur or escalate if not dealt with.
Who are you dealing with?
It is important to consider the individual you will be having a conversation with about the issue. The character and the temperament of the individual may impact how you address the issue – it may be appropriate to choose just one familiar person have the conversation with an individual who is reserved and shy, whereas it may be best to have two people in the conversation with an individual known to be emotional and angry.
The frame of mind of the individual should also be given consideration – it may not be best to have a conversation about a sensitive issue when a person is having unrelated personal problems, for example, as they may not be in a place to take on feedback and may not respond well.
Prepare in advance
Preparation is key. Investigating the issue, preparing materials, evidence or documents, or writing a script in advance can help you feel more prepared and more in control of the conversation. We draft a lot of scripts for line managers around sensitive subjects to help them feel prepared and more confident, and the feedback on these has always been very positive.
Preparing a safe location to have the conversation is also important, and a private room such as an office where an employee will feel that the conversation is in a confidential space is important.
Focus on the issue
When having a conversation about a sensitive subject, it is important to focus on the issue at hand and not the person. Avoiding blame is the best route as it lets the individual feel they can be open and discuss the matter, and this fosters a dynamic where you are able to be collaborative to find a solution and support.
Practicing what you are going to say beforehand with a colleague can provide you with feedback on how your body language and tone are being received, and being conscious of this can improve the way you are received by the individual.
The most valuable thing you can do when discussing a sensitive issue is to listen to the individual involved. Being listened to is empowering and lets people feel like they are being respected and taken seriously.
Allowing the individual time and space to process the discussion and react in the way they need to in that moment will help the conversation be more authentic and meaningful. This allows you to understand the situation or issue from their perspective and offers a starting point from which to begin a dialogue and move towards a resolution.
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Submit your most pressing HR questions to our very own agony aunt Sonia Rai, founder and director of Nectar HR, to get valuable free advice.