Difficult Conversations at Work

Difficult conversations are just that difficult.  Lots of us go out of our way to avoid them, but it usually comes at a cost.  At work it may mean we don’t ask for what we want; we avoid having those hard conversations around accountability with our colleagues; or we don’t provide our direct reports with the honest feedback they need to grow.  Like many other things, there’s skill and will involved here with some learning and practice we can get better.

Let’s start by looking at guidelines for having difficult conversations:

  • Be on the lookout for issues that could lead to difficult conversations and address them before they turn difficult.
  • Approach a tough conversation sincerely, and be committed to having it; be clear on your objectives and don’t allow it to veer off-course.
  • Use I vs. You language: “I’m not sure I have all the information, can you help me…” vs. “You didn’t get me the information…”
  • Don’t let it get personal: manage your voice, emotions, and body language; know your triggers and take a time-out if you need it.

Now let’s look at a framework for engaging in the conversation and getting to a positive outcome:

  • Listen: ask questions so you fully understand the other person’s perspective; interrupt only to summarize and ask clarifying questions.
  • Validate: acknowledge the other person’s perspective, but don’t necessarily agree: “It sounds like this issue is very important to you.”
  • Express your Position: tell the other person what you want him to know; advocate for your point of view without diminishing his.
  • Problem Solve: brainstorm together how you can move forward; build on small areas of agreement and return to Listen if the conversation becomes adversarial.
  • Confirm Agreement:determine next steps, including best ways to check-in.

So what difficult conversation do you need to have?

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