How to have a difficult conversation (tips and importance)

By Indeed Editorial Team

Published 25 July 2022

The Indeed Editorial Team comprises a diverse and talented team of writers, researchers and subject matter experts equipped with Indeed's data and insights to deliver useful tips to help guide your career journey.

Difficult conversations might be uncomfortable, but they may be necessary to address issues in a workplace and help you improve your relationship with other employees. A difficult conversation in the workplace requires you to be open and honest but also sensitive and diplomatic. Learning how to have these conversations can help you handle situations in your workplace effectively and gain soft skills to advance in your field. In this article, we discuss what a difficult conversation means, steps on how to have a difficult conversation, tips on making these conversations effective and productive and the importance of having these conversations.

What is a difficult conversation?

A difficult conversation is a conversation that is tense, emotional or otherwise challenging. Difficult conversations usually relate to important issues like work performance, conflicts between team members and financial matters. They're typically a result of inadequate communication skills. Some individuals may not listen actively and others may rely on assumptions when speaking. This can be due to difficulty articulating feelings or concerns in a way that's easy for others to understand.

How to have a difficult conversation

Here are some steps on how to have a difficult conversation:

1. Understand what it means

The first step towards a successful, difficult conversation is understanding what it means. A difficult conversation differs from an argument. An argument involves two individuals who disagree on one point, while each tries to convince the other to agree with their point of view. Difficult conversations focus more on listening than arguing. It's about understanding each person's wants before proceeding with any action plan or solution.

Recognise when a conversation with a colleague is going to be difficult. This effort can be a challenge, as many individuals avoid these conversations. But, recognising when a conversation is likely to be difficult may make it easier for you to prepare yourself for what's coming next.

Related: What are channels of communication in the workplace?

2. Prepare yourself

Plan how you want to approach the conversation and prepare yourself mentally for what might happen during the process. This stage can mean thinking about what to say or writing it down. It can also mean getting additional information or documentation relevant to the conversation. You may keep things organised and focus on these points rather than on other issues that may arise during the discussion. If possible, take some time before the conversation to relax and ensure you're feeling calm and ready.

Related: What is the difference between goals and objectives?

3. Contact the parties and set a time

Set aside some time in which you can implement the conversation with the other party. You may set this meeting during the weekend so it doesn't interfere with either of your schedules. It may also be preferable to meet outside work, as keeping your composure at work could be challenging. If this isn't possible, you may find a quiet corner with no distractions and where you can focus completely on what you want to discuss with your colleague. You can also consider scheduling multiple meetings over several days or weeks until both parties resolve the issue.

4. Assess the situation

Before starting a difficult conversation, ensure you know what it's about. If you don't understand why your colleague is upset and angry, you may be unable to talk about it effectively. For example, if they're angry because of an issue in their personal life, ensure you both have time to discuss this before discussing their work performance or behaviour. Otherwise, they may feel you're judging them unfairly. This step is crucial because it helps you make an informed decision about how to proceed.

5. Assume positive intent

When speaking with an upset colleague, it can be tempting to assume an ulterior motive or that they're being manipulative. Instead, try to assume they're having difficulty communicating their feelings. This action means you understand that the other individual holds no malicious intent.

6. Listen actively

Listen closely to what the other employee says for a productive dialogue. When you do this, you hear what individuals say, not just the words they use but also their underlying emotions and intentions. This action enables you to respond appropriately because you understand the other party's perspective and empathise with them.

Avoid assuming that your opinion is the only one that matters. Asking questions and listening are great ways to show that you're interested in what the other party is saying. Give them time and space to respond before moving on to another topic or sharing your thoughts and feelings about the conversation.

Related: How to improve your active listening skills

7. Express your feelings and ideas

Be honest about how you feel, even if it seems uncomfortable. If you hold back your true feelings during a difficult conversation, they may come out later and do more damage. Try to develop solutions together rather than making an announcement and hoping that the other party agrees with it. Instead, think about what would work best for all parties and find solutions.

Related: Empathy vs sympathy at work (definitions and differences)

8. Practice self-awareness

Listen to the other party's opinion, even if you disagree. This step is essential if the subject of your discussion is sensitive. If you get upset during the conversation, take a few deep breaths and try again. Be ready to apologise if you made a mistake.

Ensure that your colleague understands what requires discussion and why it's essential. You may also want to be aware of your feelings and those of others involved in the discussion. Try not to focus on what they did wrong or your emotions. Instead, focus on your own goals for the discussion. Ensure you're not overreacting or taking things too personally. This action may help ensure your message is clear and compelling without causing undue damage.

Related: A guide to self-awareness (with examples)

9. Be mindful of your body language and tone

Be mindful of your body language and tone of voice as you talk. Ensure you're making eye contact with the other person, as this shows them you're listening. Also, avoid using harsh language or yelling at them as this may only worsen things. When explaining your concerns, try using 'I' statements, such as 'I feel' rather than 'You did'. This action makes it easier for others to empathise with your opinion without getting defensive. You may also want to avoid offensive or sensitive topics, as these are not appropriate or acceptable in most workplaces.

Related: Positive body language and gestures that put people at ease

Tips for making a difficult conversation productive

The following are tips that can help make a difficult conversation effective and productive:

  • Find a neutral location for the conversation. This can be a good place to start the conversation because it can help the employee feel less nervous.

  • Ensure all parties know what to expect. If all parties know what to expect from the conversation, it may help them prepare mentally for the discussion and stay calm and focused on the subject.

  • Prepare yourself for any emotions that might arise during the conversation. This action can help you stay calm, making it easier for others around you to listen and respond well.

  • Consider bringing a neutral party into the conversation. This individual can be your supervisor and manager. They can help facilitate the conversation to benefit everyone involved.

  • Practice mindfulness. This effort can help you focus on the difficult conversation and manage emotional reactions that may distract or derail you from getting the desired result.

  • Resolve issues. Try to reach a resolution that both parties can agree on and compromise if necessary.

Related: A comprehensive guide to workplace communication styles

Importance of having difficult conversations

Having difficult conversations can be challenging, but they're essential. Here are some reasons:

  • Better collaboration. You can learn how your colleagues feel about a specific topic or issue to better collaborate with them in the future.

  • It improves public speaking skills. They help you become more comfortable speaking up in meetings and other professional situations.

  • Better decision-making. It can help you make better decisions in the future based on your understanding of what happened in the past.

  • It develops conflict resolution skills. Having difficult conversations can help you learn how to respond when other colleagues hold such conversations with you, which can ultimately lead to better outcomes when handling conflict situations.

  • Aids communication. It helps keep the lines of communication open and honest, which is essential in working relationships.

  • It develops essential skills. Having difficult conversations can help you develop skills to become a better communicator and improve your relationship with other employees.

  • Aids growth. It helps you grow as an individual by enabling you to reflect on and improve on some of your actions.

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