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6 Tips From a Leadership Coach for Handling Difficult Work Conversations With Grace

Nobody likes having hard conversations at work, but it is possible to come out on the other side.

When it comes to tough conversations in the workplace, things can get awkward (or worse) fast, leaving many of us wondering if it’s really possible to address problematic behavior without alienating people or escalating tension.

In a recent Bravely survey of full-time workers, 70 percent of respondents said they avoided tough conversations at work. Of course, no one wants to be the bad guy or stir up drama, and past experiences can haunt us. But letting fear rule never yields positive results.

I once watched management fail to confront a difficult employee who, unfortunately, was quite critical to the business. Leaders wasted hours discussing her actions amongst themselves, but they were afraid to confront the woman directly. It was deflating to employees when they saw management not addressing performance issues.

In the end, the individual abruptly left anyway, trying to sabotage the business on her way out. Management learned that avoiding a tough conversation could bring terrible consequences and losses. And according to VitalSmarts, experts estimate that an average of $7,500 is lost in time and resources every time you avoid crucial but tough conversations.

During another instance, I worked with a company in which two department leaders would avoid talking to each other, mainly because of past baggage. The departments worked together closely, and the tension was rough on lower-level employees. I mediated a conversation between the leaders that took a full two hours, but they addressed the elephant in the room and mutually agreed to move forward. They established plans for working together and dealing with future conflict. It was a win for them, the business, and the employees.

A 2017 survey by Quantum Workplace and Fierce Conversations discovered that more than half of people say their idea of “handling” a toxic situation is ignoring it. Just as you can’t build a wall if you don’t know how to lay bricks, you won’t have productive conversations if you lack the tools to do so.

Gathering Bricks

You can’t control another person, but you can gather effective tools so you enter a difficult conversation more capable of fostering a positive outcome. Following these steps will help you tackle your tough situation successfully:

1. Start with pure facts. Identify what happened so that it cannot be disputed and is not subject to interpretation. Write this out, eliminating all emotion. Check your story with someone you trust before your meeting to guarantee you’re not imposing opinion or including assumptions.

2. Open your mouth only when you must (for now). Don’t enter the conversation overly eager to “speak your truth.” I used to focus on what I wanted to say and try to drive conversations toward my desired outcomes. But you want the other person to engage and open up, not become defensive. Let him or her talk first, then listen with an open mind. You may be basing your views on incorrect assumptions.

3. Ask clarifying questions. Good listeners ask clarifying questions and dig for the root of an issue, guarding against false assumptions. Try stating what you think the other person said and confirm whether that’s correct. You’re not agreeing or arguing — only clarifying. Bonus points for expressing appreciation for the gained insights.

4. Share your side. Your side is equally important, but make it as palatable as possible. Use “I think” or “I experienced” language instead of “you did” phrasing to avoid put-downs and blame. Discuss the impact of actions; don’t make accusations. It’s possible the other person has no understanding of the ramifications of his or her actions.

5. Own your actions. In most situations, no one is completely blameless. Look back at your facts-only narrative to help identify where you may have contributed to the problem. Be honest with yourself first about your underlying intentions and how those may have shaped your actions. Be vulnerable and open about these — that’s what you’re asking the other person to do.

6. Remember, the real goal is solutions. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter who’s to blame. The desire to move forward is critical to a successful conversation. Look for ways to do so using specific action steps for both parties. The two leaders I worked with who resolved their conflict addressed hot-button issues and established ways to avoid triggering each other in the future.

Don’t delay difficult workplace conversations in fear of a negative outcome that might happen. Instead, think about the positives you could be missing out on, and set a time for that conversation you’ve been dreading. Whatever happens, you can look back from the other side knowing you did all you could.

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