How to Have Difficult Conversations at Work

Performance reviews. Giving feedback. Talking with an angry client. These are emotionally triggering conversations, and too often, we waste precious energy dreading them or trying to avoid them.

We worry we will hurt their feelings, or we will make things worse, or we will show ourselves up as being incompetent.

Yet we know from experience that prolonging the situation only makes it worse.

Fortunately, there are ways to handle difficult conversations which not only make things ok, but can actually improve your working relationship.

Author, speaker, and conflict coach, Judy Ringer, says the key is to be crystal clear on the purpose of your conversation. Ask yourself what would be an ideal outcome?

Then, when things get too emotional, you can keep coming back to that core purpose.

Ringer also suggests shifting your attitude. “If you think this is going to be horribly difficult, it probably will be. If you truly believe that whatever happens, some good will come of it, that will likely be the case. Try to adjust your attitude for maximum effectiveness.”

She says an attitude of curiosity is essential. “Pretend you don’t know anything (you really don’t) and try to learn as much as possible about your partner and (their) point of view.”

A step-by-step guide is useful for anyone in a work situation:

Step 1: State the problem and provide examples. State the impact that the problem is having on the business.

Step 2: Listen and question. Let the employee explain their side of the story and motives. Try to understand their point of view.

Step 3: Acknowledge the employee’s feelings and view of the situation. Confirm and clarify your understanding of what they have said.

Step 4: Reassess your position. After the employee has put forward their point of view, it is your turn to clarify your position without minimising theirs. What can you see from your perspective that they have missed? Has your position changed?

Step 5: Look for solutions. Work together to develop solutions and agree on a way forward.

Step 6: Close the conversation. Clarify and document the agreed actions and next steps, then thank the employee.

How do I begin?

One of the hardest parts to having a difficult conversation is knowing how to start. Judy Ringer suggests using one of these openers:

  • I have something I’d like to discuss with you that I think will help us work together more effectively.
  • I’d like to talk about ________ with you, but first I’d like to get your point of view.
  • I need your help with what just happened. Do you have a few minutes to talk?
  • I need your help with something. Can we talk about it (soon)? If the person says, “Sure, let me get back to you,” follow up with them.
  • I think we have different perceptions about ________. I’d like to hear your thinking on this.
  • I’d like to talk about ________. I think we may have different ideas about how to ________.
  • I’d like to see if we might reach a better understanding about ________. I really want to hear your feelings about this and share my perspective as well.