How to manage difficult conversations at work

How to manage difficult conversations at work
Julia Ngapo
Julia NgapoJulia Ngapo Business Coaching

Posted: Mon 7th Nov 2022

No matter how strongly you try and avoid workplace conflict, there comes a time for most business owners when a difficult conversation becomes the only option.

We often try to avoid them, fearing that we may make a difficult situation worse, or that we may say the wrong thing, causing an already awkward conversation to escalate out of control. We fear that a difficult conversation may damage our relationships or our work environment.

We don’t want to be labelled as “the troublemaker”, so avoid conflict whenever possible.

But difficult conversations are a necessary part of working with others and for those new to leadership or management, are often a necessary part of the role.

However, difficult conversations are not restricted to team management and performance but can also occur between clients and organisations.

Take for example, a conversation informing the client that a project has been delayed or that a mistake has been made.

Of course, many of us have experienced conversations in the past that perhaps haven’t gone to plan and hold on to that negative experience, believing that all challenging conversations must, therefore, follow the same direction.

But difficult conversations don't have to be combative - here are my six tips on how to handle a difficult conversation at work.

Don't procrastinate

If there is a difficult conversation to be had, then dealing head-on with the issue as it occurs is far preferable to letting the situation simmer. It is extremely easy to think we're doing the right thing by avoiding conflict, but all that happens is our anxiety builds, exacerbating the original problem.

We feel backed into a corner and then deal with the challenge from a space of being forced to act. By being proactive in our approach to any challenging conversation, we display a sense of confidence in our own ability and are more likely to gain a positive outcome.

Reframe the negative

Although procrastination should be avoided, it is better to allow ourselves time to breathe, reflect on our objectives, and formulate a plan for the conversation than it is to rush headlong in.

If you feel that heightened emotions are likely to get in the way of a constructive conversation, then time spent working on a positive mindset will help.

A negative mindset affects not only the atmosphere, but often the direction the conversation takes, and instead of feeling well prepared and approaching a difficult conversation in a positive and well-prepared manner, we may appear confrontational.

If you assume that the meeting is going to be productive and go well and view it as just another office conversation, then your approach will be more confident and the energy you bring to any meeting will be more positive.

Plan the conversation

Although you don't want any difficult conversation to appear scripted, it can be really valuable to create notes around what you want to say and how you're going to frame it before the conversation takes place.

This allows you to be flexible around the direction the conversation takes, giving your counterpart time and space to express their thoughts and feelings, whilst ensuring you still get your points across. Ensure any language you use is simple, clear, direct, and also neutral.

Be objective

Badly managed, a difficult conversation can turn into a combative one. It's therefore vital that, where possible, you adopt an objective view, acknowledging your counterpart’s perspective and listening to their answers and explanations.

When you actively listen to your counterpart, you demonstrate that this is not personal and have a genuine interest in their point of view.

Compassion and empathy are two key skills that should be incorporated into any difficult conversation at work. When speaking to an employee, it may be that person has difficulties at home, has mental health challenges, or other issues that you know nothing of, so give them time and space to be heard without judgment.

Ensure the conversation is focused purely on facts and not emotions. If you can separate what you know from what you think you know or feel, then there is less risk of assumption or projection.

Collaborate to find a solution

It is important to remember that your approach to any difficult conversation should be to find a solution. By keeping this in mind, you can frame the conversation as collaborative, and a chance for feedback, rather than combative.

After all, you're likely to have to continue working with your counterpart after the conversation, so it makes sense that any conversation is viewed as a two-way thing, where both sides can talk from their perspective, can hear the other person, and reach an agreement through brainstorming a solution together.

Managing difficult conversations at work - Conclusion

Whilst difficult conversations are never pleasant, they are an inevitable part of business life. The key to effectiveness lies in ensuring you approach any challenging conversation with the correct mindset, having in focus that you are dealing with another person, another individual, who has their own perspective on things.

When you approach any difficult conversation with honesty, integrity, and compassion, then there are real opportunities for positive conclusions.

Connect with Julia today for more brilliant business support!

Julia Ngapo
Julia NgapoJulia Ngapo Business Coaching

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