Four easy steps to having difficult conversations at work


By Pooja Khajuria, Consultant


The thing with difficult conversations is that nobody ever wants to have them, especially if you are like me and dread even the slightest of tensions in relationships, even though we know that avoiding them will only make things worse.

Difficult conversations become more difficult the longer you wait. By not talking about the issue, you can also build up anxiety that will hijack your mind for hours together and make the situation seem bigger than it really is.  

We try to avoid conflict as remarkably as we create it. And yet, it is fundamentally not bad for us and our relationships at work or in personal life. A difficult conversation may lead to a well-deserved pay raise, understanding a different perspective or figuring out a way to effectively work with others. Therefore, it is important to normalise tough conversations!

Here are a few tips for handling tough conversations at work:

  1. Be curious

Conflict avoidance naturally stems from a fear of jeopardising our ‘niceness’. However, while having challenging conversations, that should not be the priority. Instead, it is important to go into the conversation with a certain level of honesty, curiosity and consideration. Genuine curiosity and respect will usually result in the other person doing the same. So seek to understand the other person’s perspective by asking thoughtful questions and asking for clarification if needed. Sometimes it is even helpful to repeat what the other person said and confirm you have understood their words correctly, “What I hear you saying is…”

  1. Listen

The most important thing to do while having a tough conversation is to listen actively and empathetically. Stay present, make eye contact, observe, don’t interrupt or plan your response while the other person is still talking. Try and gather as much information as you can by asking neutral follow-up questions without blaming them. Don’t feel the pressure to talk a lot during a difficult conversation, instead focus on listening and reflecting. Listening and communicating effectively will not just help you resolve the current problem together but will help your relationship in the long run.

  1. Be direct and avoid vagueness

Deal with uncomfortable situations in a frank and straightforward manner. Usually, the person on the other end of the conversation is likely to sense your energy. So, if you approach the conversation feeling uncomfortable or hesitant – it will be awkward. Be confident, avoid vagueness and use specific examples to make your point. If you’re asking for a raise or promotion, take initiative, begin the conversation with confidence and get to your point quickly. Or if you want to bring an employee’s attention to their irregularity, rather than saying, “You have regularly been missing the deadlines”, say, “Over the two months, you have missed at least 3 deadlines”.  By being specific, you keep the conversation objective and clear.

  1. Close the conversation

Usually, the goal of having such a conversation is to reach a solution. Work together from the start of the conversation to come to an understanding that you both are comfortable with. For example, if you’re telling an employee they didn’t get a promotion, provide clear reasons and suggest solutions on how they can become better. Once you agree, decide on actions to achieve that resolution. Finally, try to end the conversation on a positive note by sharing a few words of gratitude. Ending the conversation on such a note helps ease tension and encourages such healthy exchanges in the future.


Hope these tips help you as much as they did me!

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Here’s your next read: an article on how listening can be a strategy, not just a reflex.


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