We Need To Talk: Mastering the Conversations You Don't Want To Have

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Having a difficult conversation at work is no fun, but handled well and it can lead to positive results.

In the workplace, the ability to connect with people, understand their needs and then deliver on them is a critical skill. Broadly labeled “emotional intelligence,” it’s now routinely measured as an important indicator of future success. Part of that involves knowing how to handle difficult conversations with others at work.

It could be a review of an underperforming employee or a discussion with your boss about why the numbers were weaker than expected or just a routine conversation with a difficult colleague. Whatever the issue, the office provides plenty of opportunities for conversations you’d rather not have.

But before you start one of these talks, especially if the other person is upset, it’s good to take stock of your own emotions.

“It’s really good to try to center yourself and get your own emotions down,” said Karen Dillon, the former editor of the Harvard Business Review and author of the HBR article, “How to Handle Three Types of Difficult Conversations.” “That’s the first thing. Pause if you can. Zen out.”

The second thing Dillon suggests is recognizing that the other person is incapable of hearing you in the moment they are emotional. They’re angry and they need to say something. Let them know that you hear them, but don't respond right away.

“After they’ve said what they’re going to say, paraphrase back to them what you think you just heard,” she said. It shows you really did hear them. “Stand your ground calmly. Don’t give in. Don’t apologize. Think about what it is they’re saying and then think about how you’re going to respond.”

This is especially important when decisions you disagree with are imposed upon you. Frame your feedback in the context of the organization.  

“If you really look like ‘I’m on the team and I get my place on the team, but I want the team to do well. Here are my thoughts about how we can make it better,’” said Dillon, “I think you’ll find most people are receptive to that.”

It’s also important to never surprise people by having a critical discussion for the first time in a group setting. Approach people who may be sensitive first, tell them what you plan to discuss and ask for their feedback. 

Remember Dillon’s two steps:

  1. Don’t have the conversation in a moment of anger.
  2. Think about what you want to say and practice how you’ll say it.

“It’s a skill like anything else,” said Dillon. The more you do it, the better you get.

“Many people who rise to the top are there because they don’t avoid conflict. They’re seen as people who can handle conflict in a constructive way and get to the other side without making enemies along the way.”