Can we talk? Tips for navigating tough conversations at work

Find out how to effectively and respectfully navigate difficult conversations in the workplace.

In Practice

September 01, 2021
By Cate Spirgel September 01, 2021

Most of us mere mortals are no stranger to uncomfortable situations: deciding between a hug or a handshake during new social interactions, sitting in a movie theater and not knowing which armrest we’re entitled to, trying on a coat in Target only to realize that it’s the coat of another customer…etc. 

Discomfort is present in all spheres of life, especially in the workplace. Have you ever zoned out during a team meeting only to realize that you have been staring into a co-worker’s soul? Have you accidentally called your boss “Mom” and then wanted to die a slow death? 

Unless you are a superhuman who has never faltered, you most likely have experienced varying degrees of embarrassment at work. And, unless you enjoy lukewarm coffee and wet socks, you probably hated every second of these extremely awkward interactions. So, how can we navigate difficult situations moving forward in order to maximize productivity and communicate effectively?

How can we navigate difficult conversations in the workplace? 

While more complicated and harmful situations likely require context-specific advice, here are some general tips for navigating difficult conversations in the workplace:

1. Approach the conversation as if you know nothing, even if you do.

Shed your ego to practice care and compassion. In this TedTalk, Adar Cohen, Ph.D., a conflict resolution expert, shares the benefits of having tough conversations and shares three tips on how to navigate them. He says, “Ask questions about people’s experiences and listen to what they say. Important things will be said because you’re there listening, and the better you listen, the better the people having the conversation will listen to each other.” We all want to be heard and recognized — this approach helps put you in the right mindset to more effectively hear your colleagues, even when it’s challenging.

2. Address the problem as soon as possible

Meme reads: "So you're telling me open, candid conversations can boost business?" A child looks skeptical.Isn’t it advisable to pick your battles and to keep the peace? Not always! According to Officevibe, an online platform that helps managers cultivate stronger, healthier relationships, “Nearly 1 in 4 employees do not feel that their manager is aware of employee pain points.” Furthermore, bottling-up emotions may create resentment and breed a toxic workplace culture. Biting your tongue and dodging long-deferred, important conversations may hurt more than just company relationships; it may adversely impact productivity and profits. According to Forbes, “avoiding difficult conversations can actually lead to dysfunction and lack of performance. A major study found that employees spend an average of 2.8 hours a week dealing with conflict, which amounts to roughly $359 billion in workforce costs.” Even if it’s uncomfortable, open conversations addressing difficult situations are important for our well-being and foster stronger teams at work.

3. Be direct

“Diplomacy is a great virtue but so is clarity, and diplomacy without our clarity is just undiplomatic B.S.  Have the courage to be direct.

Anthony Tjan, CEO, co-author of Heart, Smarts, Guts, and Luck

Being direct can be one of the most respectful, and needed, actions within a difficult conversation. Avoiding a topic or skirting conflict leads to wasted time, confusion, and possibly passive-aggressive communication doing a disservice to all involved.  Joel Garfinkle, executive leadership coach, writes, “Talking with people honestly and with respect creates mutually rewarding relationships, even when conversations are difficult.” Of course, being direct does not mean being hard and cold. The most effective type of direct communication considers the personality and cultures present. In more conflict-avoidant situations, consider how you can “add clarity” rather than being direct. While ultimately both actions accomplish the same objective, this language nuance may soften your tone to be more appropriate for your conflict-avoidant colleagues.

4. Keep your cool

Difficult conversations can provoke our emotions and our fight or flight reactions.

Fight or Flight

“The fight or flight response is an automatic physiological reaction to an event that is perceived as stressful or frightening. The perception of threat activates the sympathetic nervous system and triggers an acute stress response that prepares the body to fight or flee.”

As we’re physiologically heating up, it’s more challenging to be our best selves and communicate our point. Melody Wilding, executive coach and author of Trust Yourself: Stop Overthinking and Channel Your Emotions for Success at Work, explains:

Difficult conversations intensify our emotionality because our minds perceive them as a threat. To the primal parts of our emotional brain, the worry of being disliked or losing standing is akin to being ousted from the group and causes real pain. In fact, science shows the brain makes no distinction between social exclusion and physical pain, which is why rejection—or the anticipation of it—hurts so much.

In those moments, staying calm will ensure we’re communicating most effectively with our colleagues and minimizing saying something we might regret later.

Hack Plusgreen Focus on something physical to regain your perspective during a heated conversation. When trying to keep your cool, try boxed breathing to reset your nervous system.

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