Difficult conversations at work can be awkward and unpleasant, but ultimately, they need to be had. These conversations can lead to more productivity, better working relationships and a more integrated team when done well. This is especially true if you avoid things like shaming or blaming, and keep the conversation productive and healthy.
If you cringe a little bit at the thought of having a difficult conversation at work, know you’re not alone. More than 70% of people avoid these types of conversations in workplaces according to a recent study by Bravely, a career-coaching startup. By avoiding what we need to say, we’re opening up room for lower morale in the workplace and creating toxic work environments.
Here are a few ways to make getting through a difficult conversation at work easier:
Don’t avoid it
The longer you wait, the harder it will be to bring up. Also, the longer you wait, the less relevant the difficult conversation will be to the person who needs to hear the feedback.
One way to make you less likely to do this is to reframe the conversation. For example, instead of thinking it’ll be tough for this person to hear this, think that this is information they need to do their job better.
Avoiding a conversation may have deeper roots, too. It may be a sign that you aren’t providing feedback as frequently as your team needs to stay on track. Some studies show that weekly one-on-one conversations keep teams most aligned, which lessens the need for difficult conversations in the first place.
Use “I” statements
When you begin sentences with “I” instead of “you,” you avoid using language that makes the person feel put-down. It also helps you be more empathetic and focus on what you can control: what you’re feeling.
For example, instead of saying, “You never get to work on time, can you please make sure to get here by 9 am?” you could say, “I really need you to be here when we start at 9 am because I have some crucial work for you to complete in the mornings. What can we do to make that happen?”
You’re saying the same thing, but in two completely different tones. The latter is likely to get you better results without hurting the working relationship. It lets the person know what you feel, why you need them to do what you’re requesting, and offers help to get to where they need to be.
Know your perspective may not be correct
Whenever you enter a difficult conversation, it’s likely because of a breakdown of communication. What you’re seeing may not be the entire picture, and you should be open to hearing someone out. Feedback, after all, isn’t a monologue. It’s a discussion between two people to find a better way.
When you enter a conversation like this, be willing to change your mind. You don’t want to commit to the story in your head without having the full perspective of everyone involved. Be ready to listen, absorb, respond and understand how you can move forward together.
You might be surprised by what you hear. If that’s the case, it’s likely a signal that you need to be more involved in the day-to-day of what’s happening with that person or the team they’re on. This shows the importance of these difficult conversations in creating transparency and openness in the workplace. Without them, we may never see the bigger picture.
Be prepared to come up with a solution together
Your job is not done after you tell the person what’s wrong. In fact, that’s just the beginning. From that point on, your job is to help find a viable solution to the problem.
When you keep this in mind, it will likely make the feedback you give more productive because you are no longer just stating a problem you see, you’re also responsible for helping to find a way out of it. If you’re not up for that challenge, the feedback is likely not necessary to give.
Of course, there are a few situations where this isn’t true – especially if you are being made to feel uncomfortable or being harassed at work. If that’s the case, seek help from your HR department or someone who can make your work environment better.
But, for the majority of work-related conversations, be ready to roll your sleeves up and help the person create a plan for success.
OfficeVibe has some great thoughts about dealing with difficult workplace conversations. They also have the best quote of all time about it: “Ending a difficult conversation without an action plan is like preparing cookies without putting them in the oven.”
OfficeVibe takes the approach that all parties involved should make sure they understood what was said, and even have a brainstorming session together to find a great way to solve the issue or at least come up with the next few steps.
Follow up to prevent issues down the line
We all react to criticism differently. Some people feel it immediately, others take time to absorb what was said. Be aware that the information you’ve relayed to someone may not hit them for a good day or two.
Hard conversations can bring up many emotions, including embarrassment or resentment. Our goal is to help the employee work through these feelings while letting them know that we’re there and ready to support them. It’s your job to periodically check in on them to ensure that your feedback was productive, and they understand that you’re there to help. Just like the need for frequent feedback, frequent check-ins after hard conversations can really reduce harboring any bad feelings or long-term resentment.
If you do sense tension after the conversation, schedule time out of the office to get together. Remember, you’re meeting as individuals and not colleagues at this point. The goal is to get your relationship to a place where trust and understanding are the first priority. Spend time talking about things outside of work first so that you can connect with each other again, then ask how you can help make that person feel better or more secure at work in light of the difficult conversation you both had.
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