Difficult conversations in the workplace


Although the workplace can be a challenging and exhilarating place to be, it can also be stressful, nerve-wracking and overwhelming.

If you regularly feel you’re not making yourself heard or you struggle to raise contentious issues, you’re not alone.

In fact, the vast majority of people worry about their interpersonal communication skills. While you may feel confident or relaxed in a social setting or at home with your family, transferring this poise in a workplace environment can be tricky.

Although you may feel apprehensive or anxious about raising difficult issues in the workplace, it’s important to do so. Regardless of your job role, being able to discuss potentially thorny or upsetting issues with your colleagues is vital to your success, the on-going functionality of the business and, potentially, the health and wellbeing of staff.

Are you conveying confidence?

When problematic topics need to be raised, it’s important to exhibit a sense of self-assurance. Whether you’re discussing an employee’s performance, a supplier’s deliveries or a client’s late payment, approaching the issue with confidence will show that you’re not going to ignore potential issues, nor overlook them.
Many people apologise for bringing up difficult topics, even when they are duty bound to raise them. If you regularly start your sentences with, ‘I’m sorry to bring this up…’ or ‘I’m sorry I have to raise this…’, think about the impression this gives to your audience.

Communicating with confidence doesn’t mean being brash or arrogant, it simply means you will be able to engage in these conversations more easily and obtain better results. When other parties realise that difficult issues won’t be overlooked because raising them may be anxiety-inducing or embarrassing, they will understand that the onus is on them to step up.

How should you handle sensitive topics?

Dealing with sensitive topics in a workplace environment can be confusing. While you may want to show empathy and understanding to your employees and colleagues, you’re also mindful of asking too many personal questions or prying into the private lives of your staff.
Of course, sensitive issues are a routine occurrence in the workplace, so handling them effectively is vital in any business. If an employee is continually late, missing targets or upsetting other members of the team, for example, you are going to have to tackle the problem.

Establish their point of view

Attempting to resolve difficult issues without understanding the other person’s point of view is doomed to failure. Arriving at the office half an hour late on a regular basis may seem unequivocally unacceptable, but it’s still important to establish exactly what the other person’s point of view is.

Furthermore, being receptive to their beliefs and opinions is a great way to show empathy. Although you may, ultimately, need the individual to alter their behaviour, approaching the issue with interest, understanding and compassion is a far more effective way of resolving it.

Understanding the individual’s values or needs can help to establish a shared understanding of the problem and unlock new ways of solving it. Known as collaborative or non-violent communication, determining what needs they are trying to get met will help you to understand exactly what their position is.

Being independent and objective

When you’re raising sensitive issues, it’s essential to take an objective approach. If you begin by being evaluative or subjective, the individual may become defensive from the start, and this doesn’t cultivate a sense of shared understanding or proactive problem-solving.

Instead of making blanket statements or adding judgements into the conversation, simply state what the actual issue is and allow them to respond. For example, saying, ‘Your arrival time is meant to be 9am but you arrived at 9.30am three times in the last week’, is more accurate and objective than, ‘You’re always late; it’s not good enough’.

By being independent and refraining from making judgements, you will give the individual the opportunity to discuss the issue with you in confidence. Taking a subjective or emotional stance may prevent you from getting to the truth of the matter, which won’t enable you to establish effective resolution techniques.

By remaining objective and factual, however, you can start the conversation from a neutral position, use effective communication skills to work towards and meaningful and realistic solution. If you are struggling with your communication skills then it can be a great idea to attend a communication course to boost your confidence.

Close by making a request

Bringing up difficult conversations can be challenging but concluding them can be tricky too. Instead of a colleague feeling dejected and demotivated following your conversation, you want them to feel supported and inspired. To achieve this, close the conversation by making a request.

Instead of saying, ‘You’re always late, it’s not good enough, this is your final warning’, make a request, such as, ‘I would like to ask you to come in 9am from here on in, is that doable?’

The latter is a far more effective way of achieving the desired outcome and it doesn’t demoralise your colleague in the process. Furthermore, asking whether something is achievable or doable gives the individual the opportunity to discuss barriers to the desired outcome. By understanding why the problem is continually occurring, you can fully appreciate the nature of the situation and work towards finding realistic and long-lasting solutions.

How important are difficult conversations in the workplace?

Being able to raise sensitive issues and resolve them effectively is critical to your success in the workplace. Avoiding these topics can have a detrimental effect on your own career, as well as the success of the business, so it’s important that you deal with challenging issues head-on.

Whether you’re managing staff and need to resolve performance issues, making a case for a long overdue promotion or negotiating a salary increase, being able to approach these issues calmly, objectively and with empathy is crucial. With the right skills, technique and approach, you can successfully deal with a myriad of sensitive or difficult issues and ensure that all parties walk away with a deeper understanding of the issue, a clear path to an appropriate resolution and a renewed sense of confidence.

Photo by Joshua Ness on Unsplash