Published on Mon, 25/04/2022 - 17:03
Kate Sturdy

Most of us love a good chat, even a bit of a barney... debating our differences can be fun, right?  
But from time to time, we find ourselves having "difficult conversations" at work which feel anything but fun. Awkward, uncomfortable, or downright stressful, in fact. Sometimes we take the responsible action to pick up with someone when we've noticed them acting or behaving negatively. And sometimes those conversations can catch us unaware in the moment. Either way, they tend to spring from three basic causes:  

  • Values: where there is a clash between people over their values, where for example a manager takes responsibility for upholding the group’s agreed behaviours.   
  • Communications: where there is a real or perceived criticism or misunderstanding, where someone’s response is misinterpreted (perhaps because it is outside of our own experience).  
  • Power imbalance: where one person feels or fears a loss of control or influence over a situation, where there is a real or perceived power imbalance.   

However tricky the conversation, there are some good ways to manage them. If you can plan beforehand, then take time to do so. It will help you keep calm and focused if you have in mind what you want to get from the conversation. Of course, this isn’t always possible – but even so, having awareness of the ideas and tips below will stand you in good stead if you find yourself in the middle of a chat that takes a tricky turn.   
First and foremost, be aware of your own stress response and the fight, flight or freeze impulse. Manage your stress symptoms:  breathe, relax your muscles, calm your voice. Listen and give yourself a moment to think before responding.   
Then try and:  

  • Have an open mindset. If you already have a view about the other person, how could you suspend that judgement? Remind yourself that everyone has a different perspective and carries different baggage.    
  • Decide on the outcome you want from the conversation. What is your long-term goal for your relationship with this person? Instead of just acknowledging that a behaviour was unhelpful, what would a genuine positive shift look like?  
  • Set out up front your intentions. In a short sentence explain your reason for holding the conversation, for example “I noticed your strong emotional reaction at xx meeting and wanted to ask you about what was happening…” This helps avoid that shuffling and throat clearing which immediately creates an awkward atmosphere. It’s fair to the other person to be candid.  
  • Ask for their views and check back you’re understanding. For example “so you felt you were exposed you in front of the group which is why you got angry?”  
  • Ask how they think the problem might be resolved and probe with open questions.   
  • Draw to a conclusion - so that you feel in control of the process, even if the content is tricky. At best, you will be able to close the conversation with a resolution. At worst, you will still be able to draw things together and suggest that both parties have more thinking time before coming back.  

Above all, assume goodwill on the part of the other person and be genuinely curious – exploring human differences is always interesting, even if not always fun...  

We all face difficult conversations. What tips will you try out next time?  

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