How To Manage Difficult Conversations at Work

Project conflict

The work environment is not always rosy and bright. You may have experienced or seen others go through difficult conversations with a peer, a boss or a subordinate. If you were in the business of dealing with customers and suppliers you surely would have come across a difficult conversation or two.

Good conversations are always pleasant and fruitful, leaving you with a feeling of accomplishment. However, this doesn't happen all the time. Even with teachers who are having conversations with their students, giving a smart aleck kid the upper hand spells disaster. At work, business conversations can always end on a positive note if everyone involved has good communication skills. Unfortunately, not all conversations can be that way. When you are faced with a difficult employee, it's like talking to a stonewall.

Here are some tips in handling difficult conversations at work:

  1. Keep the conversation private. Select a place where you can talk to the person privately. This way, should the conversation get heated, it doesn't become water cooler fodder the next day. This also prevents the other person from dragging co-workers in the area into the conversation.
  2. Be in control of the conversation. State the purpose of the conversation and what you hope to accomplish in the end. This gives the other person an idea of what will transpire. Your demeanor, tone of voice and body language should exude openness and never seem confrontational.
  3. Listen and paraphrase. A major part of having good communication skills is using active listening skills. Hear out the other person, listen attentively and rephrase what he said. Clarify the points he made. Never interrupt unless the person is taking too much time or going into a different direction.
  4. Use the words "I" and "and" instead of "you" and "but." The word "you" can make someone feel you are criticizing or accusing him. "I" promotes communication and allows you to clarify your thoughts and feelings. Using "and" is positive and encouraging. While the word "but" can be deemed argumentative and defensive. It also negates the value of whatever was said prior to it.
  5. Be direct and never judgmental. If you have something to say, whether it is good news or bad news, say it in a clear, simple, direct and tactful manner. Always be respectful and non-judgmental in your words and actions.
  6. Be prepared for negative reactions. No matter how well you handle a situation there will be people who are simply too emotional. Keep your own emotions in check. Be prepared to diffuse the situation by taking a breath and bringing the conversation back to the facts. If you have to, suggest that you both have a break and continue afterwards.
  7. Involve the person in the solution. To elicit cooperation from the other person, it is best to ask him for his suggestions. Involving the person in problem solving will make him feel valued.
  8. Say thank you. Thanking the person at the end of the conversation shows respect for them.

Next time you are faced with a difficult conversation, don't fret. You don't need to be a Harvard graduate to know what to do. Just follow the tips above. There are also dozens of books and training programs that deal with managing conflicts and difficult conversations.

Remember, difficult conversations are opportunities for you to turn something negative into something positive. You don't need to avoid these, just know how to manage them. It's a challenge you should be willing to face in the work place. After all, a life without challenges is uninspiring.


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