Difficult Conversations At Work

How would you describe a “difficult” conversation? While the topics of what we each consider a conversation to be “difficult” might be different for all of us, generally we perceive it as “difficult” when:

Opinions vary. You think that your employee is not performing up to organization’s expectations. Yet, the employee is of a different opinion – you overheard him bragging to his colleague that he is “an indispensable worker”.

Stakes are high, or in other words the consequences of the conversation may have a significant impact over the lives of conversation participants. You think that you deserve the raise, but your boss takes a different stance. The outcome of conversation may impact your financial situation.

Emotions run high. You may start casually and calmly, but as you try each to defend your egos, the emotions of anger and disappointment might take over you and the conversation. These emotions hinder to effectiveness of the conversation.

Many of us try to avoid or postpone difficult conversations infinitely. We may avoid having such conversation because of our fear that it may make matters worse, may disappoint the other person, or may damage our relationship. Sometimes, we avoid having a conversation with someone in authority due to the risk (perceived or real), such as retaliation or employment loss. Often, we hope that the issue will simply go away.

Sometimes we try to deliver the tough message through alternative means such as texts, voice mails, or emails. We may know stories about people sending emails in capital letters to each other when emotions run high instead of walking down the hall and having a conversation about the issue.

Denial, avoidance, or emails in capital letters make matters only worse. Let’s say you try to protect your relationship with the colleague by avoiding a conversation about his strong perfume that bothers you. Yet, the relationship already suffers. You are annoyed and building on resentment towards your colleague. You are trying not to sit next to him in meetings.

Holding difficult conversations effectively requires good will and some skill.

Get the motive right. First, you have to be honest and clear with yourself about your motive for the conversation. What would you like to accomplish as result of this conversation? What you do not want to happen as a result of this conversation. How should you go about getting what you really want and avoiding what you don’t want? For instance:
I want my team member to be more reliable regarding delivering his tasks within project timelines. I do not want to have a useless or heated conversation that produces negative feelings.

This motive has to stay as a guiding star throughout the conversation. If your initial motive shifts to the desire to win or to prove to the other person that he is wrong and you are right, then the mutual dialogue will convert to the power struggle. Such a power struggle will not bring you the desired results, and most likely, will leave you and the other person feeling deflated. The motive is more important than the choice of words throughout the conversation.

Prepare for the conversation. Check your perceptions against the facts. What facts do you have to support your perception or your “story”? If you think that your boss micromanages you, what are the exact behaviors that make you feel/ think of being micromanaged? Could there be any other explanation to the boss’ behaviors apart of his intent to micromanage you? Getting your story straight may shift your perception. Additionally, it allows you to be clear about the concrete facts to be shared with the other person.

Create safety. At the beginning of the conversation, it is essential to create safety for the other person, and consequently for yourself. Respect is a necessary condition for an effective conversation. Respect is an attitude that can be, first, created internally. Even if you feel no respect for the other person’s behaviors or values, embrace respect for the other person as another human being. Show your respect through your body language, eye contact, and tone of voice.

You can also create safety by describing that you and the other party have the same goal(s). I trust that you are committed to seek a good outcome of this project that we work together. So do I – the outcome of this project is important to me.

Share your story.
State the facts: Since we started working together on this project, you’ve been late with the deliverables four times. It has caused me working through the last two Saturdays so that we, as a team, could stay within project timeframes.
Tell your interpretation of the facts and how it affects you: The timeliness of the deliverables is the issue for me.

Encourage the other person to share their story.
Ask: Please let me know if you see it differently.
Mirror: You say you are OK, but by tone of your voice you seem upset.
Paraphrase: Let’s see if I’ve got this right…
Agree when you do
Compare your and others’ views: I think we see things differently. Let me try describing how.

Create the plan. Sometimes a good outcome of your conversation is deciding on how you are going to decide, and then subsequently having a follow up conversation to develop a plan. Your plan has to include an outline who does what by when. Also set up a follow up time to revisit your agreement. Recording of the commitment is always a good practice.*

Our human tendency is to avoid difficult conversations. However, tackling the issues in a respectful way and trying to come up with a mutual solution, it is almost always a better alternative that prevents conflicts, improves relationships, and helps us feeling better about ourselves.

*This approach of holding difficult conversations is based on:
Patterson, K., Grenny, J., McMillan, R., Switzler, A. (2002). Crucial conversations: Tools for talking when stakes are high

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