Can we talk about it? Reframing difficult conversations, with Garin Allen

In the realm of professional interactions, difficult conversations are inevitable. In this article, Garin Allen, an HR Technical Consultant with extensive experience in the Civil Service HR Casework and Technical Consultancy  team, sheds light on the transformative power of reframing these challenging dialogues.

With a background as an HR Case Manager, Garin’s journey within the Civil Service spans seven years. Over this time, he has witnessed substantial changes, with increasing numbers of clients engaging with HR Technical Consultancy (HRTC) service. These changes, Garin offers, have been driven by a combination of factors, but one significant catalyst has been the Civil Service HR Casework and Technical Consultancy  team partnership with MatchFit – the HRTC.

“Things have changed massively since I started all that time ago”, he says. “More Clients have come on board looking to plug those gaps in their technical capabilities. When you see cases coming in time and again, by addressing capabilities and making managers more confident in their ability to deal with issues, you can reduce the number of cases.”

What has driven this change?

“I think the partnership with MatchFit has helped support the development of the HRTC” Garin says. “But in terms of why the change has happened, I think that as a public sector body, the casework around attendance and other issues is a significant cost. We need to be able to deliver services,  if people are off sick, we need to ensure we’re resolving the root cause.

The Civil Service is huge, so there has been a lot to change over the last couple of years. But working with the prisons particularly, as we do with our Enhanced Service, it has very much been a case of deeply understanding the underlying issues and asking ‘How can our prisons, our public sector departments, deliver great service for the public that we serve?’ We can’t do that until we get managers capable of managing people in a way that improves attendance, for instance.”

The issue highlighted by Garin is one that plagues many organisations – the lack of managerial skills. He passionately advocates for providing line managers with essential soft skills training, emphasising the importance of setting up leaders for success in managing their teams effectively.

“I’ve often found that people have been promoted into a managerial position without receiving important soft skills training”, he says. “Despite the fact that there are people reporting to you, and you have the ability to shape someone’s life and career, it can be a very neglected area of your management journey. It’s useful to learn by making mistakes, but it’s not appropriate to learn from those mistakes at the expense of others. Making those same mistakes time and again can result in a reduction of morale, and people leaving, which is a great waste of talent.”

“I’m quite passionate about this – how do you step up from being one of the team one day, to running the team the next?  We need to upskill people so that they’re set up for success from the start and can lead their team effectively, delivering a great service to our public.”

On paper, this is all very fixable – all it actually takes is for somebody to be steered in the right direction; asking the right questions of themselves and understanding how to use that information; how it all fits together. But clearly, in practise, it’s much more complex than this.

“If you consider that there are thousands of managers across the Ministry of Justice and across the Civil Service as a whole”, Garin reflects, “the reality is that if I select five managers to train, that’s a tiny pool. So we have to look at how we scale this up.  When we see civil action cases coming through, we need to be asking what can we do to remedy that? Could better line-management have prevented the absence? Could the absence have been managed better in terms of getting the person back to work? It’s a dual pronged approach.

When we look at the prisons, our priority is to reduce reoffending and protect the public. How do we do that if we don’t have the staff on the landings to support the prisoners? This is a situation that can spiral, as if there aren’t enough staff, that puts more pressure on the ones that are there, which increases absence due to sick leave.”

Addressing the challenge

The HRTC partnership has developed a number of modular interventions that can be selected according to the analysis and recommendations made at the start of the HRTC Service.

Garin explains: “We perform an Analysis every time we work with a different client, and then suggest the key areas that we can really support with. We look at what the survey is telling us in terms of the culture and what the one-to-ones are telling us when we’re talking to the twelve selected people across the organisation. We look at the HR case audit to understand the nature of HR cases. All this information combines to help us decide which five or six interventions we should pick, and why? The common topic though is communication – it’s what we all do every single day. As an HR Case Manager back in the day, I would ask ‘have you had that conversation with Person X around expectations?’ And so often the response was, ‘no, I assumed they would know.’

People are communicating all the time, and if we don’t get that right, then nothing else can easily follow. That’s why the ‘Reframing Conversations’ intervention is so popular.”

Why is this so useful?

Garin explains: “Conversations form part of our everyday. Every time we have a conversation with somebody, we’re getting something out of it. So this intervention looks at ‘how do I get the best out of those conversations? How can I approach a difficult conversation well, rather than putting it off?  What is my conversation style; what are the styles of my team members?’

We look at elements such as avoidant tendencies – I’ve certainly been there in the past! Then you have the bulldozers who will say anything, without thinking through the consequences. You have the peacekeepers, trying to find the balanced approach everywhere. And then you have those individuals who really have nailed the dialogues; the professional communicators that can get the best out of a conversation – by active listening, essentially.

The really important part of that intervention is where we focus on ‘Five conversations, one at a time’, based around the book by Cowley and Purse. We look at how we can build for the future, set expectations with our teams and build trusting relationships. For me, this is that ‘penny drop’ moment in the intervention, when people realise that ‘these conversations really are important, and here’s why’.”

Garin mentions that Reframing Conversations also dovetails nicely into another, called CLIMB 360 Feedback, which focuses on actively extending, soliciting and receiving effective feedback. When giving feedback, how do you frame it in their conversation style, so that it actually lands with that person? He says: “Others that work well around it as well are the coaching modules; looking at having coaching conversations with your direct reports. They work really nicely together because again, the coaching approach allows you to have a conversation that you build around trust, and then develop really targeted actions that address clearly defined  issues.”

The impact in practice

“One standout example of a successful intervention that comes to mind, where I could really tangibly see the improvement,” Garin recounts, “is one that will sit with me forever. I delivered ‘Reframing Conversations’ in a prison environment to a Custodial Manager. I would say she was probably quite shy, and she was very unsure of herself. She was actually very good at her job, but her confidence just wasn’t there. When I came back a few months later, and asked how things were going, she said that as a result of the intervention she had been able to challenge the Governor over a decision she disagreed with, which she would never have done before. The skills she learned as part of the intervention enabled her to get her point across, earn the respect of the Governor (who took her points on board) opened the door to future fruitful conversations.”

Why does the HRTC Partnership work so well?

“The MatchFit partnership with us works well for many reasons.” Garin explains. “Having an external consultancy approach helps us see how we can do things better. But even more important is that we work really collaboratively, it’s a partnership that is seamless – our clients see us as one entity.

MatchFit also has a very phenomenological approach, which makes the programmes and interventions truly relevant to people. Rather than just throwing theory at participants, it’s all linked back to their workplace with practical hints and tips for how they can use it.

Ultimately, conversations are the things we do every day. They’re the chance to get things right; they’re also the times when things can go drastically wrong. So getting these conversations right, having them frequently and building trust in the workplace, is so important. This is why these interventions go down so well with the people we work with, as they can see how they link back to the organisation and how they can use it. Rather than leaving the workshops with lots of information but wondering ‘how am I going to implement this?’, people have gained an understanding of how they work, how their team works, and how the organisation works. But most importantly, how they can implement the actions both immediately, and on an ongoing basis.

The bottom line is that if you get the conversations right, other things will fall into place as a result of it.

Garin’s Top Tips for Managing Conversations

  • It’s essential to build trust – without it, you’re not going to build for the future.
  • Develop active listening skills, without bias or judgement.
  • Find out about your team – what makes them tick?
  • What’s their life like outside of work?
  • How do they want to be communicated with; how do I want to be communicated with?

Recommended Reading

To further delve into the subject, Garin recommends the book ‘5 Conversations: How to transform trust, engagement and performance at work‘ by Nick Cowley and Nigel Purse

To learn more about the MatchFit CLIMB interventions, please visit the website

If you’d like to learn more about our MatchFit programmes, take a look at our information pages here, or why not get in touch? [email protected] or call +44 (0) 7858 775 249