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Annette Quinn Preparing for difficult management situations

As a Management Trainer, I’ve seen first-hand that, when it comes to dealing with difficult situations, many managers do their best to ignore it, in the hope it goes away; or put up with it, in the hope that its impact will be smaller.

Sometimes, it’s hard to argue with that! I don’t think many of us relish approaching a difficult situation, and most of us will want to avoid it. However, it won’t surprise you to hear me say that this is the exact opposite of what we should be doing. Difficult situations should be met head on, dealt with in a cool, calm and assertive manner. Only then, will the situation go away or its impact lessened.

But what is a difficult situation? How can you define it?

In my experience, you know you are in a difficult situation when your gut tells you! For me, once I feel that feeling, I think “uh oh, this is not good, this is going somewhere I don’t want it to go, this is not going to end well”. Needless to say I am a bit of a catastrophic thinker.

And therein lies another thing, not everyone is going to find the same situation difficult. For example, as a trainer, I have no concerns in standing up in front of a room of people and training or presenting. For some that would have them throwing up with. I have no qualms asking what might be the stupid question, in a room full of important people, but others worry about making a fool of themselves. But, if anyone says to me “Can I have a word” then my ‘gut’ kicks in, I worry and suddenly find myself in a difficult situation. And if that ‘word’ turns into criticism, well, all sense goes out the window!Preparing for difficult management situations

So, difficult situations can be planned for, that is, you know you are going into a situation that you assume will be difficult, and possibly expect the worst (but hope for the best).

Or, the difficult situation is something that has just arisen; unplanned, unexpected and usually as the result of an event or person.

Some examples of planned difficult situations for managers are:

  • Having to give someone constructive feedback, on something they haven’t done well
  • Conducting a Performance Review, where you know the individual is hard work, and it will be a long, stressful session
  • Having to tell someone that they are to be made redundant, not get a pay rise
  • Giving bad news in general
  • Managing attendance
  • Organisational change
  • Giving a presentation
  • Management meetings

Really, the difficult situation will always be personal to the individual. What is great about the planned events, is that you can, well, plan for them!  You are in control. You can think about it beforehand. In order to prepare, consider the following:

  • What you are going to say?
  • How you are going to say it?
  • What should your body language look like?
  • Should you stand up or sit down?
  • Desk or no desk?
  • Time and location
  • How will the room be set up
  • The key message you want to deliver - have it written down
  • How to be assertive and, if needs be, manage conflict to minimise its impact

The feeling in your gut may be there before hand, through it and maybe after it, but in the planned event, you are able to manage your emotions more effectively through preparation, as it is the emotional response that can make the difficult situation worse.

Having put the thought into it before hand, in rational mode, you can refer back to notes. Cenetring is a great technique for managing emotions, which can be done before hand and in the situation. I also like a desk to lean on, as that way I can look strong, and we know 55% of our message comes across from our body language, when in a one-to-one situation.

But, what about the unplanned events? Those that just seem to happen. You know you’re there, as your gut will tell you. We can’t help it, is our fight/flight instinct. Once you recognise it, move into your head and think about what you should do, and how you can respond, rather than react.  Once you have mastered that, you can deal with the unplanned difficult situation.

Here, it’s much the same as the planned event! And if you have dealt with those in the right way, just pull on that. Think about:

  • Your words, tone and body language
  • Centering yourself
  • Focusing on facts
  • Asking lots of open questions
  • Summarise back
  • Actively Listen
  • Keep an open mind

This might seem like a lot to remember when you are in the midst of a difficult situation, but I promise you, if you have practiced, it will eventually become second nature to you. If you haven’t done anything like this before, then don’t pick the most difficult situation as first place to practice. Practice it all the time, in the workplace and at home. It works very well with teenagers, as once you manage your emotional response, they will respond differently.  It’s called the Betari Box Concept.

Preparing For Difficult Situations - Betari Box

In my series of blogs, I will go into more detail as to how managers can manage attendance, difficult people and conflict, looking at the knowledge, skills and behaviour needed to make it as easy as possible.


Annette Quinn, Performance Management Facilitator

In my series of blogs I will be taking a look at performance management, in particular Time Management, and providing tips on how to develop your skills.

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