This might get loud… Handling difficult conversations at work

By Alison Hill

You know the feeling – your shoulders tense up, your heart is racing,  your palms sweat and you tell yourself, ‘This is awful, I have to tell Joe the analysis is really bad, and the work has to be redone. He’s going to be so angry and hate me for this’.

We all have to face difficult conversations at work at some time or another. They may be with a boss, a co-worker, a direct report or a colleague, or even with a customer. Luckily, there are ways to make these difficult conversations a bit easier. We will walk away feeling okay if we can keep calm and mature. Easier said than done, I hear you say.  Here are some tips from the experts about managing those hard-to-have talks.

1. Manage yourself first

Negative self-talk hypes you up before the conversation, explains Eleanor Shakiba, people skills expert and author of Difficult People Made Easy. As well as relaxing yourself physically by calm, steady breathing or talking a quick walk (or whatever works best for you), take stock of your mental state.

Instead of: beating yourself up about what you have to do, catastrophising the situation by telling yourself, ‘I can’t stand this’ or labelling the other person as ‘difficult’ or ‘always so aggressive’

Try this: move the conversation to a neutral space, such as a meeting room or a coffee shop, rather than your workspace. Don’t sit down while the other persons stands – you’ll feel intimidated. If the conversation is sprung on you, take some time to calm down and deflect the situation, by saying something like, ‘I will need five minutes to gather my thoughts. Let’s meet then.’ You are more likely to be able to come up with a solution when you feel calmer, too.

2. Set your boundaries

Separate your own thoughts and feelings from those of the other person, and decide what you will and won’t do in the situation. Then communicate those limits, taking responsibility for your side of the relationship.

Instead of: being overwhelmed by the person’s anger or aggression or being aggressive or emotional in return

Try this: reframe the conversation as a search for a solution, which will calm both of you down. Do this as soon as you can. Restate the facts very briefly, and then say, ‘How can we fix this?’ If you have been insulted, say something like, ’Thanks for your insight. I’ll think about it and see if I want to act on it. But for now, what do you  need to sort this out?’

3. Focus on the issue, not the person or their behaviour

Instead of mulling over the history of the conflict situation, or blaming anybody for it, move as quickly as possible to focusing on the future. Ask the other person to work with you. To help you, try using Eleanor Shakiba’s ACE ( acknowledge, challenge, explain) formula, which she shared in a recent interview with Adele Sinclair of Wellness at work for Mental Health Month.

  • Acknowledge: what the other person is feeling
  • Challenge: what is going on between the two of you by reframing the problem
  • Explain: that you want to try and find a resolution  

Instead of: blaming and getting mired in the detail, and asking ‘why?’ (which will only encourage the other person to tell you again why their version of reality is the right one)…

Try this: Ask, ‘What would be a fair solution?’ and ‘How can we fix this?’ Moving past blame to a future-focus and getting the issue resolved defuses the situation and makes a lasting solution more likely. It is helpful to offer three options and then asking, ‘Which would you like me to do?’ Everybody’s energy then becomes directed to choosing a solution rather than on blaming or shaming.

Finally, Shakiba reminds us that we can’t fix every problem in a five or ten-minute conversation. See it as a series of conversations to be had. Treat a potentially difficult series of conversations as an opportunity to explore and be creative, and approach them constructively rather than as a threat. If you can manage this, you will be nurturing the positive team culture we all aspire to work in.

You can read more about Wellness at Work and Difficult People Made Easy at their websites.