March 6, 2019

How to Have Difficult Conversations at Work


Are you avoiding a difficult conversation you know you need to have? Ask yourself this question: “What will change if I don’t have this conversation?”

The answer: nothing.

That’s right. If you avoid the conversation, nothing changes, and whatever your situation is stays the same. You rob yourself of the ability to solve a nagging problem, or make a change for the better, or even improve your relationship with whomever it is you need to talk to.

At work and in life, difficult conversations are inevitable, but they don’t have to be paralyzingly difficult. By getting comfortable with the process of having these conversations, you can learn to operate from a place of empowerment rather than fear.

Follow these four pillars to have successful conversations:

1. Assessment

This is where most of the work comes in. You can’t have a successful resolution without a clear assessment of the situation, and that requires preparation. These are not conversations to have on impulse when emotions are running high.

Before the conversation takes place, clearly define the goal. What is the outcome you wish to achieve with this discussion? It can be as simple as having a better working relationship with someone, or as complicated as solving a pervasive company culture problem.

Once you have a clear goal in mind, it’s time to assess the situation. Consider how you may be contributing to the matter, and be ready to own your part. Conflict is generally a two-way street, and it’s unlikely to other person in the conversation deserves all the blame.

Also, be sure you don’t have a hidden agenda. For example, if your goal is to have a better working relationship with someone, be careful you’re not also looking to win an argument or prove someone wrong. If you’re trying to lay blame somewhere, it’s best not to have the conversation until you’re able to let go of that desire.

2. Approach

Part of why the assessment is so important is because it helps you determine your approach. It is critical that you avoid putting the other person on the defensive. You can’t approach the conversation as if you are right and they are wrong. If you do so, it will be over before it even starts.

Think of the conversation as a way to explore the situation and learn more about what is going on with the other person. Don’t start with “We have to talk” or do anything else to suggest you think the other person is to blame for something. No one wants to feel like they are in trouble. Instead, acknowledge that there are two of you in this situation and highlight the end goal. For example, you could say, “I think we have different opinions on this project, but I’d really like to try to understand each other and find a way to work more effectively together.”

3. Attitude

Your approach will get you started on the right course, but your attitude will steer your conversation to ensure it stays on that course.

You have to remain open to hearing the other person’s perspective. That doesn’t mean you have to agree, but you must acknowledge how the other person feels when you look at it from their point of view. If anyone gets defensive, you both need to take a step back and address it.

If you sense your conversation partner growing defensive, try to defuse the situation with something like, “I think you’re getting defensive, and that’s not my intention.” If you feel yourself growing defensive, acknowledge it and hit the pause button for a moment so you can collect yourself.

A good way to redirect a derailing conversation is to use a contrasting statement — for example, “I’m not saying your work on this project isn’t good enough. You’ve been very committed. What I am saying is that the statistics need a bit more work.” If you have to, restate the purpose of the talk. You’re not there to find fault but to work on achieving a goal together.

4. Action

You can talk until the cows come home, but if there is no action, there is no change. The action may be small. It may be something as simple as coming to understand how the other person operates and keeping that in mind.

For example, you may be someone who has lots of creative ideas and gets really excited about them. When you share them, your colleague may look to poke holes in your ideas. You can interpret that as purposefully highlighting the weaknesses of your ideas, but your colleague’s intention may be trying to help strengthen your idea. These are two complementary traits that commonly clash in work environments. With the right understanding, however, you and your colleague can use these traits to become a very powerful team together.

Some conversations are more difficult than others, but with the right preparation and mindset, you may be surprised to see just how painless the process can be.

A version of this article originally appeared on the Atrium Staffing blog.

Michele Mavi is Atrium Staffing‘s resident career expert.

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Michele Mavi has nearly 15 years of experience as a recruiter, interview coach, and resume writer. She is Atrium Staffing’s resident career expert, as well as director of internal recruiting and content development. She also founded Angel Films, a division of Atrium Staffing focused on the creation of recruiting and training videos.