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How to deal with difficult conversations at work
Tight deadlines, competing interests and internal politics can create frustration and misunderstandings at work. Most people would rather avoid a tricky conversation if they possibly can, but this unwillingness to tackle issues head-on can leave them with potentially negative consequences. A stand-out employee will confront a difficult situation with tact and timeliness, rather than run from such a challenge.
The benefits of instigating a difficult conversation can be huge. When you need to confront your manager or raise a difficult topic with a team member, it can be awkward, but you can take action to increase the likelihood of a positive outcome.
Staying solutions-focused, respectful and open to alternative perspectives in a tough conversation will not only help you resolve problems and deliver results but also make a positive impression with your manager.
Here are seven tips and techniques to help you stay calm in a tough conversation:
Control your speech
In a difficult conversation, speech can become hurried, and the pitch, tone and volume can intensify, making you sound flustered, angry, out of control or too emotional. Pay attention to how you’re coming across, and if you feel your voice changing, your breath becoming shallow or your chest tightening as the conversation goes on, slow down and take a deep breath.
Controlled breathing is essential to keeping your voice sounding even and reasonable. In slowing your breathing down, you will be better able to remain calm and maintain professionalism with your boss. Preparing beforehand also helps you keep calm.
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Maintain respect for all parties
Respect the professionalism of other participants in the conversation as well as the task at hand. Honour your professional reputation too, as your conduct in difficult conversations will have an impact on your image in other scenarios.
If the issue you’re raising is one of professional conduct, it becomes especially important to maintain your own professionalism during the conversation. Avoid any unprofessional language, and give the benefit of the doubt whenever possible. Even if you feel disrespected, it can’t be a license to be disrespectful – whether the person in question is present or not.
Steer clear of personalisation
As an employee, it’s important to remember that you’re not representing your personal interests in these conversations but rather ‘the business’. During the conversation, avoid pronouns such as ‘you’ and ‘I’ and refer to different parties by the name of the organisation, department or specific team.
If you’re having difficulty working with one of your colleagues, frame the conversation as a roadblock to getting the work done effectively, rather than about how that person is making you feel. If the conversation is a salary negotiation, focus on your contribution to the team and business and avoid points that only focus on your needs – such as your family or financial commitments.
Avoid overselling your point
Use the power of the pause. Make a point clearly but then stay silent as the other party thinks about what you have said. People often rush to fill any silence by repeating their points in slightly different ways, but this can make you appear less sure of your position.
If you’re asking for more resources for your team, explain how the deficit is impacting performance, then leave a few seconds for your boss to reflect.
Listen to the responses you get
Aim for a positive outcome from a difficult conversation. By listening to counter-arguments and considering alternative options to solve problems or misunderstandings, you can achieve a positive outcome for both parties sooner.
If your manager is explaining procedures or why resources are limited, ask questions and demonstrate that you understand their perspective. Be aware of the fact that you might not have all the information in a given situation – so if you’re open to being persuaded yourself, even if you don’t walk away with what you want, you’ll at least gain an understanding of the reasons behind the decision.
Negotiate and compromise
In business, relationships are reinforced when all parties walk away with something. A complete win for you could mean a total loss for the other party, so give ground where you can and keep the relationship on positive terms. You might not know when you’ll need their assistance, or need to work with them closely in future.
You might not get the salary raise, but you could agree on some targets ahead of your next performance review. The person you’re finding difficult to work with is probably not going to get fired, but personnel allocations might be reviewed ahead of the next project.
End on good terms
Even when a conversation is particularly tense, remember to thank the other party for his or her time – genuinely. Ideally, all parties will leave with a positive outcome, satisfied that they have represented the business and their professional image to the best of their ability, but it’s not always possible. If that’s the case, you’ll have to be prepared to go back to work on cordial terms.
The additional benefit of leaving the conversation with a positive note is that if you don’t get what you’re asking for, you’re leaving the door open to raise the point again further down the track. Your manager might even return to you in a few weeks or a few months having considered your point more thoroughly.
For more career advice, visit the Michael Page Career Advice hub.
Handling a difficult conversation can be challenging, but losing your cool or freezing up could tarnish your reputation or negatively impact your workplace relationships. However, by respecting all parties, speaking clearly and trying to not become emotional, you should be able to respond appropriately and conduct the conversation in an amicable manner.