How to Navigate Difficult Conversations at Work

It’s inevitable that sooner or later you will have a difficult conversation with a colleague or co-worker. Managing the conversation without losing your cool is often easier said than done; many will resort to unprofessional forms of communication (bullying, shouting, manipulating  or avoidance) as a means of hiding their own inadequacies. Being too proud, too overwhelmed by insecurities or feeling too vulnerable are typical barriers to effective communication in this area and issues which start as small snowballs soon coalesce to produce an underlying current of toxicity affecting wellbeing, morale and productivity. Here are a few insights from Professor of Leadership at Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management Brian Uzzi, whose approach to preventing relationships from turning sour, called the “3 Rs”, may be useful. Read on to discover more.

See Also: How Not to Avoid Conflict in the Workspace

1. Redirect

Uzzi suggests as a first step to ‘redirect’ the emotion. In other words, focus on the emotional state of your co-worker/colleague. Redirect negative emotions by giving your coworker a different explanation for the situation that triggered their emotion, or encouraging them to consider different explanations. For example, you could appeal to a higher authority or external situation as being the instigator for the current state of affairs. Another way to redirect emotion is to portray a mutual source of tension in a positive light – doing this shifts the negative emotion away from you. Redirection is key because it is the foundation for the second step in Uzzi’s process: reciprocity.

Tip: Set an emotional goal for the conversation. How do you want your co-worker to feel as a result of your conversation? Reassured? Inspired? Use this as an anchor as you aim to redirect the emotion.

2. Reciprocity

The premise of this stage is not a simplistic, “If I give you this you must give me that”. Rather, it’s based on the reciprocity principle of giving before you ask; a principle that requires the surrendering of something of value rather than “carrying out a transaction” which is no basis for a relationship, Uzzi says. He suggests reflecting on ways in which you can immediately relieve your coworker’s pain point or meet an important need. But where does that leave you? Uzzi’s response is to first concentrate on fulfilling your own end of the bargain, but also give your co-worker an easy way to give back, or as he puts it, “without the person’s feeling that pressure”.


3. Rationality

It’s important to ensure that the fragile relationship you’re rebuilding does not diffuse over time. Rationality – the last step in Uzzi’s process – sets the rules of future engagement and necessarily includes an acknowledgement that a new mind-set must be birthed; one that requires your working together as allies and not enemies. This step in the process enables both parties to articulate what they expect from each other. On the benefits of Rationality, Uzzi says:

It avoids the ambiguity that clouds expectations and feedback when flattery and favors come one day, and demands the next.”


See Also: How to Report Unethical Behaviour in the Workplace

Research reveals that difficult conversations are seen as stressful and likely to provoke anger, and avoidance is a common way to respond to them. Uzzi’s insights offer a helpful 3-step framework to help us improve the way we navigate tricky conversations.

How do you approach difficult conversations at work? Please share your ideas in the comments box below.



PDF- Difficult Conversations Report