5 Tips to Navigate Difficult (but necessary) Workplace Conversations

Difficult conversations, even at work, are a part of human interactions, as much as people try to avoid them. Oftentimes, uncomfortable conversations need to happen to clear the air or to address an elephant in the room. While rehearsing a conversation beforehand may be a commonplace tip, often even running through them in your head is not a good idea as you really never know what the other person will say or feel. 

Therefore, when addressing challenging conversations at work, it is always a good idea to come to the table with as much dignity and respect as possible. Even in a formal setting, it is good practice to try and envision how it may feel on the receiving end of whatever difficult conversation you need to have. 

The first tip to starting such dialogues is to openly acknowledge that it might be an uncomfortable chat. And while there is no script for such conversations, here are a few tips to make these interactions easier for all parties involved: 

1.    Imposing viewpoints 

In a difficult conversation, a common mistake is to insist that our way of thinking is correct or that our views are apparent. This can often imply (even unintentionally) that the other party’s views are incorrect. Such attitudes may cause words like “clearly” or “obviously,” to be thrown around, which in turn may lead the other party to feel sidelined or insulted.

It is advisable to avoid forcing your agendas, thoughts, and views on others, with the understanding that we all have different opinions. In thoughtful and productive conversations, there is no measure to which party is 100% correct. Instead, try to shift your focus on understanding the conflict at hand and listening to all perspectives.

2.    Tone of Voice

It is very important to be cognizant of the tone and even the cadence you have during difficult dialogues. You may be coming to the conversation with a reluctant second party, who is already nervous about participating. In such instances, raising your voice or having a forceful tone will only make the conversation even more uncomfortable. This can also lead to having the other person shut down completely, which is the last thing you want in a productive discussion. Rather, aim to keep a neutral tone, speaking slowly and thoughtfully. Even when discussions get heated, it is vital to fight the urge to raise your voice – and rather, remain cool, calm, and collected. 

3.    Nitpicking 

It is human nature to dig up things that a person has done to us in the past to prove that they are at fault. In these instances, this can often lead one to analyze a person’s character and inadvertently use phrases like “per usual,” “like always,” or “you never.” This tends to shift the focus to the frequency of a problematic action rather than the how to solve it. Rather than nitpicking, try instead to provide specific examples of better practices and what can be done in the future to avoid the problems that led to your discussion. 

4.    Telling others what to do

Often at work, it is easy to fall into the trap of dictating or telling others what to do. Authoritative discussions or phrases such as “you should do X, Y, Z ”  can give the illusion that you do not trust the other party. Rather, try to use open phrases such as,  “have you considered x?” or “have you thought of Y.” By allowing space in conversations for others to provide input, the other party will feel empowered and leave the discussion feeling emboldened to take positive action.   

5.   “Don’t take it personally.”

The moment you tell someone not to take something personally, you are about to get as personal as it can get. Rather than relying on common quips or anecdotes that are oftentimes evoked to gloss over awkward conversations, it is better to be direct and address elephants in the room. By acknowledging to the other person (especially upfront) that you can understand how this conversation may be hard or uncomfortable, it will help the other person feel more comfortable. As commonplace as it may sound, always putting yourself in the other person’s shoes will help you to avoid saying hurtful expressions, even those that seem benign. 

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