How to deal with difficult conversations at the workplace


How to deal with difficult conversations at the workplace

"The way you communicate in challenging times dictates whether your organization thrives or barely survives."

We all have found ourselves in a situation where a casual conversation at the workplace gradually escalates into a heated argument. These conversations become even more challenging when you step-up to the managerial position. It is because you have been given the task of managing work through the resources under you.

Getting work done through people is pure art, whether it is addressing the issue of latecomers or understanding why the performance of a few people is dwindling. No wonder, soft skills for managers have become one of the most desired skills amongst some of the biggest organizations.

Companies see Emotional Intelligence and collaboration skills as an invaluable asset for the company. However, some of us need to hone that skill of managing difficult conversations in the workplace more than others. 

A few years back, a survey done by Fractl showed how employees approach Difficult Conversations at the workplace. 

percentage of respondents approach difficult conversations

Source: HBR

Similarly, another research done by Bravely stated that more than 53% of the employees handle the "toxic" situation at work by simply ignoring them. 

Handling difficult conversations is not just limited to the conversation between managers and employees. It is also true for the situations where employees at the horizontal level are finding it difficult to communicate without ending up in an argument. 

Take for instance, how difficult it becomes for us to confront a colleague who has a habit of coming late. If you both are working on a project together, it is obvious that there would be inter-dependencies. But the right choice of words to convey to them that their unavailability on time is just dragging the project is something that you are struggling with.

This is just one of the common issues that we face at the workplace but lacking the much-needed skill of managing difficult conversations in the workplace, we decide to simply put up with the toxic situation.

Let's understand a few tips that would help manage difficult conversations in the workplace.

How to deal with a difficult conversation at work 

1. Face the situation head-on– For all the people who think that the best way to handle a difficult conversation is to just avoid it, go ahead and participate in the conversation. Whether it is about the salary hike, appraisal, and method of doing a project or resource discussion, talk about the issue and advance your career development.

Face the situation head-on

Indulge in that procrastinated discussion

Acknowledging the elephant in the room is a first step towards resolving issues in a workplace. If you are just going to sit there and wait thinking that the others should initiate then the problem might get just bigger eventually.

2. Do your homework– One of the most crucial things that you need to do while managing difficult conversations at the workplace is to understand the cause of difference of opinion. Unless you understand the intentions and mind-set behind an action or opinion, the conversation would never find their way to a constructive ending. 

You are in a better position to suggest something or counter the opinion of the person only when you have a 360-degree view of their stance in the first place. 

3. Express just your Opinion– Many a time we make a silly mistake of referencing someone else while giving our suggestions. Statements such as 'We all think', 'others agree with me on the issue' etc. should be avoided completely.

Remember, your colleague or manager might get offended if you are trying to tell them that the majority of employees agree with you and not with them. Even though not evidently, they might shut down their ears to your opinions even before you could voice it completely. 

After all, no one likes to be told that they are wrong and most of the employees think that. 

4. Avoid having a sensitive conversation in Public- Scenarios where two colleagues or the manager are at odds with each other. For instance, daily scrum meetings at times go exhaustively long and embarrassing because of the difference of opinion.

Towards the end, you anyways do not get any outcome of such public spats. Moreover, the important issues get sidelined and ego-clashes start happening. To avoid such situations, make sure that you have a word with the other party in private. 

Have a meeting scheduled at the convenient time of all the stakeholders and try resolving the issue. There can be few follow-up meetings but keep the agreed-upon points of the meeting to yourself. 

5. Listen Carefully– Listening is an art and a must-have skill for all the professionals, irrespective of the position they hold in an organization. You might have come across insensitive statements such as 'personal issues are not my problem, let HR handle it' during various conversations.

Listening is like a superpower that can uncomplicate the issues at the workplace

If you are trying to downplay the importance of listening by making such statements, then you are failing to understand the holistic view of the person. It is difficult to agree or disagree with the opinion of a person without knowing the factors that led to such an opinion. 

In this scenario, you are simply trying to put up an act of listening rather than trying to find out a common ground. 

Parting Thoughts 

Handling difficult conversations at work comes with its challenges because you cannot be sure of the outcome. However, having a positive demeanor and willingness to listen to the other party can make wonderful things happen.

Being empathetic even in disagreement will resolve the issues in a much better way than you realize. Further, the skill of resolving the difficult situation at work should not be limited to Human Resource Managers rather the culture of resolving through conversations should be accepted by all. 

Well, if you are a new manager, Product owners, C level management or just an executive recently added to a new project, this anonymous quote is the food for your brain – "Speak in such a way that others love to listen to you, listen in such a way that others live to speak to you.