COMPANY CULTURE / AUG. 05, 2015
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3 Ways of Managing Difficult Conversations at Work

Vin Diesel and Dwayne Johnson
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Difficult conversations are not easy to have in the workplace. You know that you need to bring up an issue, but fear of conflict can cause you to skirt around the problem and hope that through avoidance, it will simply go away. However, avoidance of these types of conversations will never bring about positive change and a solution to the difficult situation. Continually avoiding dealing with these issues only increases the chances that the toxic environment in your workplace will continue to grow and fester, poisoning any possibility of a positive and productive atmosphere.

See Also: How to Enhance Your Conversation Skills

According to a CPP Inc. study, US employees spend approximately 2.8 hours each week simply dealing with workplace conflict issues. Not properly handling the conflicts led to 33% of employees experiencing personal injury from physical attacks and 22% became ill and needed to stay home from work. Additionally, 10% of these employees experienced failure in effectively completing workplace team projects. This article will address three ways that you can manage difficult conversations at work in order to create a more positive and productive workplace environment.  

1. Direct Approach

Many times our personalities get in the way of how we manage difficult conversations in the workplace. If you are an outgoing individual with a strong leader-like personality, you usually don’t have problems starting difficult conversations. However, your delivery can sometimes be skewed and then cause more issues with conflict than when you started to speak. One of the first three ways to manage difficult conversations is for you to take the direct approach and focus on facing the issue head-on while trying to maintain a professional attitude where you seek to find a positive resolution to the difficult conversation. Consider some of the following steps involved in using the direct approach.

  • Perspective – One of the most important things you must remember with the direct approach is that you need to see the issue from the other person’s perspective. You will never execute an effective conversation if you simply charge right in and fire all your ammunition at this individual. You need to understand how this person is feeling, thinking and behaving before you can begin the conversation with a direct approach.
  • Manners – Secondly, a direct approach can work if you do it the right way. That involves having the right perspective along with the proper manner of speaking. For example, you need to maintain an even tone during your conversation. You can still be direct and effectively execute a difficult conversation without yelling at someone and acting like you are better than them. Remember to be professional at all times and you’ll all win.
  • Execution – If you want to succeed in managing a difficult conversation with a direct approach, you also need to come with facts, not assumptions. Additionally, you need to be able to deliver your points in a way that is conversational rather than interrogational. Make every effort to have an equal exchange of ideas while working toward resolving the conflict and enacting a positive solution in the workplace with your direct approach.

2. Indirect Approach

For an individual who is less outgoing and more internally focused, having a difficult conversation with someone in the workplace can seem like the end of the world. Even the very thought of approaching someone to bring up a difficult issue makes this person want to forget the entire idea and hide in their office. However, it is still possible for this type of individual to have a difficult conversation and come out of the other side with both people being winners. Take a look at the following steps in this indirect approach.

  • Severity – With the indirect approach, it is very important that you realize the severity of what could happen if you do not have this difficult conversation. Whether the conversation is in regard to a conflict with a fellow coworker, an issue with your boss or a problem with a client—if you do not have this conversation, negative results will follow. For example, that conflict with your coworker can keep festering and lead to a workplace violence issue. The issue with your boss can cause you to feel emotionally and physically drained and you continually call out sick to work. The problem with your client can lead to a lost sale or loss of loyal patronage to the company.
  • Confidence – The second step in this indirect approach is that you need to realize you have the courage deep inside to have this difficult conversation. Even though you’ve been running from the actual idea of having the conversation, you know you are capable of having it. You need to find a way for your self-confidence to meet with your capabilities so that you can face this problem and speak up about your feelings and ideas. Having confidence is one of the key factors in making this indirect approach work.
  • Performance – Once you have the severity and confidence factors settled in your mind, you need to effectively perform by having the difficult conversation. Don’t let any fear dissuade you from speaking to this individual. Focus on the fact that it is extremely important to have this difficult conversation and the fact that you are able to do it. That positive mindset will enable you to perform well and have a mature conversation that achieves effective results. Stay calm, professional and focused on the end result.

3. Teamwork Approach

There may be times when you need to invite a neutral third party into the circle of your conversation. If you need to take the direct approach, but feel that you are too emotionally involved and need a calm anchoring source, you may need to use the teamwork approach. If you must take the indirect approach, but absolutely cannot overcome your fear of having the difficult conversation, you may need to use the teamwork approach. Basically, you are bringing someone in to the conversation that can help you to stay calm, focused and behave in a mature manner. Take a look at the following steps when using the teamwork approach. 

  • Honesty – This approach will only work if you are honest with yourself and the neutral party that you invited into the conversation circle. You need to understand why you cannot use one of the first two approaches on your own. Once you acknowledge that fact, you can than accept help from a neutral individual who will help you get results.
  • Planning – You and your teamwork partner need to develop a plan that will ensure your success in having this difficult conversation. For example, if you are worried that you’ll become too emotionally charged and erupt in anger during the conversation, you need to develop a safety signal. Figure out what word or facial expression will signal to your teamwork partner that you need him to interject into the conversation while you regroup. If you’re afraid to have this difficult conversation, work it out with your teamwork partner that she would begin the discussion as the neutral party stating the issues.
  • Action – Finally, when having this difficult conversation, do your best not to veer off course from the plan. Obviously, you don’t want the conversation to be stilted and scripted. However, if you need to use that safety signal, do that. If you asked your teamwork partner to begin the conversation, let her. You don’t want to create a bigger problem by making the conversation even more difficult than it already is.

See Also: 5 Ways to Escape an Awkward Conversation

Having a difficult conversation in the workplace is necessary to clear the air, work through issues and create a more positive and productive work environment. Carefully consider which approach you should take, whether the directindirect or teamwork approaches. Above all else, remember to always be professional in your behavior and put one hundred percent effort into making the difficult conversation easier.

Have you ever had to engage in a difficult conversation in the workplace? What type of approach did you take and how did it go? Please comment below and let us know.

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