Are you Ready to have “That” Work Conversation? Handling Conflict Effectively.

Are you Ready to have “That” Work Conversation? Handling Conflict Effectively.

On a world-wide scale, unresolved conflicts exist all around us, from the current US election to the struggles between nations and the disagreements between large, public companies. Conflicts also show themselves to us on smaller, more personal scales, and those may be more important because they tend to affect us personally. These can range from the disagreements we have with our spouses and children, to the difficulties that arise between us and clients, co-workers, supervisors and employees.

Although the larger conflicts do affect us to some degree, it’s the more personal conflicts that, if not resolved completely and in a timely manner, impact us at a much more intimate level. That said, conflict isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Bringing it into the open can allow for innovation and improvement, in addition to airing grievances, resolving problems and improving relationships. That is, if those involved take the time to have those conversations on the deep level at which they need to occur.

How do you handle those tough conversations in the workplace? Do you think you do a good job?

Whether it’s just delivering a difficult message, such as “you’re not getting the promotion you were promised,” giving tough feedback or dealing with negative behavior, such as rudeness or the inability to perform a job at the required level, most of us are reluctant to have these talks. We don’t want to hurt the other person’s feelings or we just don’t know how to start the conversation.


And in some cases, we’ve been on the receiving end; maybe a boss lashed out at you for missing a deadline, or a co-worker hung up on you. So to keep from repeating that behavior, you avoid the conversations and situations all together. That’s definitely not the right way to approach these conversations. Whether running a multi-billion dollar corporation or managing a team of two, all leaders need know how to have these “scary” conversations.


What happens when conflicts don’t get resolved?

Work conflicts keep employees from performing at their best. The more time passes without resolution, problems can get messier and more complex, as everyone involved begins to feel angry, resentful and perhaps even threatened.


And when not they’re not resolved, small conflicts can escalate into major problems. At their easiest, perhaps co-workers avoid each other. At their worst, situations turn tense and require input and assistance from human resources, or outside agencies, if they, heaven forbid, turn violent. (According to the Federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration, nearly 2 million workers consider themselves victims of workplace violence each year. In 2014, 403 Americans were murdered at work.)


How do you get better at these difficult talks?

Perhaps all that’s needed is a quick conversation to clear up a misunderstanding. Or they could be much more involved and include more difficult topics, like poor performance or layoffs. Regardless of the intensity, few people enjoy having them. The person initiating it tends to feel completely overwhelming, which can delay the conversations or keep them from happening at all.

But they do need to happen.


They’ll never be easy, but perhaps there are some things you can do to make things a little less tense for all involved, and allow the conversations to flow more smoothly. The Harvard Business Review has a great list of ways to get better at having tough conversations, as well as some examples of how it’s been done successfully.


Consider the following recommendations:

  1. Change your mindset: Don’t think of it as a difficult conversation. Instead, reframe it to be less negative. For example:  a discussion about poor performance becomes a talk about skill development. Or, instead of saying no to a request, offer an alternative.

  2. Remember to breathe: It sounds cheesy, but sometimes breathing can be tough in the heat of the moment. The calmer you are, the calmer you’ll appear to the person you’re talking with, calming them and allowing the conversation to go more smoothly.

  3. Plan but don’t script: It helps to write down your thoughts and the key points you want to cover, but getting more detailed will probably be a waste of your time. These conversations rarely go the way you think they will.

  4. Acknowledge the other person’s perspective: Every situation has at least two: yours and the person(s) you’re talking to. Be sure to think about how they view the situation. And bring up your understanding in the conversation, so they see that you “get” them.

  5. Be compassionate: You are not the victim here, even though you may feel like it. Take the high road and be empathetic and compassionate.

  6. Listen: You may want to keep talking to avoid silence. But some silence is necessary and helpful. It gives the other(s) involved the sense that you understand their concerns. By pausing and waiting, you give them a chance to react, while you get a chance to breathe (See tip #2!) and think about what you’re going to say next, instead of responding in a manner that may come off as glib or off-the-cuff.

  7. Give something back: What can you offer that will lessen the sting? Sometimes offering something, even something small, makes it a little easier for the person to accept what you’re telling them. For example, perhaps you can’t provide the increase they were expecting. Can you give the person a one-time bonus or agree to revisit the discussion in six months?

  8. Reflect and learn: Don’t stop thinking about this conversation when the employee leaves your office. Run through it after they go and maybe even write down what went well and what could have gone better. Performing this exercise will help you prepare better for future similar discussions.


The key to having a “successful” tough conversation is taking the time to find the most effective and least painful process, for you as well as those you’re talking to. It won’t be easy and it may take a few times to get it right, but you’ll eventually find version(s) that works best for everyone involved.


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