Navigating Difficult Conversations in the Workplace

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Home > Blog > Navigating Difficult Conversations in the Workplace

As humans, we are generally conflict averse and for most of us there is nothing we try to avoid more than putting ourselves in uncomfortable situations. This particularly transfers to our workplace, where we are required to function as part of a team. Research undertaken by Chartered Management Institute found that difficult conversations at work can place a particularly heavy emotional toll on workers. Up to 57% of workers said that they would do almost anything to avoid having a difficult conversation. The research also found that workers found it harder to ask their boss for a pay rise than dump a partner.

When faced with a situation that requires a difficult conversation, most workers try to rationalize a way to get out of it. Whether its convincing ourselves that it’ll sort itself out eventually or maybe it’s not that big of a deal. Most of the time we are worried about the reaction of the other person – will they become emotional or defensive?

When we finally bite the bullet and decide that a conversation needs to be had, it’s easy to find ourselves dancing around the actual issue and addressing it in an indirect manner. Have you ever heard of a compliment sandwich? Where a piece of constructive criticism (the meat) is sandwiched between two slices of praise (the bread). In doing this though the person on the receiving end will usually wind up confused, not sure if they are getting promoted or performance managed.

The best way to approach a difficult issue at work is to actually deal with it. Generally, workplace issues will not just disappear. If ignored, it’s likely that the problem will just get worse and cause damage to productivity and relationships and can ultimately lead to absenteeism and turnover.

The reality is that having a difficult conversation is not something that just Managers are faced with. All workers may be expected to have a difficult conversation at some point. It’s generally the first step of an employer’s Grievance Policy or procedure – which will recommend, if appropriate, that a worker attempt to address and resolve any issues directly with any other persons involved. 

So, what can workers do to prepare for a difficult conversation and make sure it is effective?

  1. Prepare what you want to say ahead of time and determine your purpose.
  2. When meeting with the other person, state the problem lead with facts and express what you have noticed. Be clear and concise.
  3. Invite the other person to share their views and to respond to what you have said.
  4. Acknowledge the other person’s point of view and reassess your position.
  5. Collectively decide upon a commitment to change or agreement moving forward.
  6. Follow up, by documenting the discussion and keep open communication lines with the other person.

Having difficult conversations in the workplace can be hard to swallow, particularly if it involves a compliment sandwich. If you need further advice on how to navigate the conversation, get in touch with Danielle Turner on 4052 0709.