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How to successfully tackle tough conversations at work

Conflict resolution in the workplace is difficult. Whether it’s negotiating a raise, condemning someone’s poor behavior, or firing an employee, tough conversations are just a part of working with others. These hard conversations will never be easy, but there are practicable skills you can use to make them more bearable, ultimately creating a productive and positive dialogue.

Woman talking at work
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Have the right mindset

Setting your intentions before going into the meeting can go a long way. If you’ve already decided the discussion will be difficult, you will be more likely to dread it, letting your nerves take over. Nerves can cause you to act more combative during the discussion or, on the other hand, act too passive and not advocate for yourself fully.

Instead, stay positive and focus on what you want to say and how you want to say it. After all, the only things you can control are your own actions.

Plan what you’re going to say

If you’re tackling a sensitive topic in the workplace, take time to think about and plan what you are going to say and consider how the other person may react. Predict some questions or concerns they may raise so you’re prepared with well thought out answers. When you feel prepared, it’s easier to stay calm and not let the stress of the situation affect you.

Additionally, whether you’re asking for something or offering a critique, focus on the outcome you’d like to see going forward instead of harping on mistakes of the past. With this strategy, they will see things from your perspective and are left knowing that you’ve invested in their improvement and growth.

Woman talking to her boss
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Be specific and direct

Stay away from work small talk, especially before a difficult conversation. Both yourself and the person you’re speaking with are likely nervous, and small talk prolongs this nervousness. It’s best to be direct and make your point quickly. Obviously, it’s important to stay friendly with the initial “Hello, how are you,” but try not to dive into any side conversations.

Further, remember to be specific in your request or criticism. Use concrete examples to help the other person understand why you are having this chat, and be honest and detailed with your feedback. The more you can help them understand the reason for the conversation, the more likely they will be to receive it well. Further, with concrete examples of what to do and what not to do, you both leave the conversation on the same page and with actionable goals.

Recognize your colleague’s perspective and suggest a solution

Try to see things from your colleague’s perspective, and be empathetic. Ask yourself what the problem is and what, if anything, the other person thinks is the problem. If you aren’t sure how they feel, acknowledge that and ask them. This shows that you care and want to understand how they feel. Your side is only, at most, half of the story, so don’t forget to allow your counterpart to ask questions and provide feedback on your behavior as well. Actively listen to what they’re saying, treating them with the same respect that you expect for yourself.

Tough talks are (unfortunately) just a part of life. While they may be painful, they help us address serious problems and provide a more positive path moving forward that may not exist without these frank discussions. Just because the result is often positive, that doesn’t make these chats any easier to have. It’s okay to still be nervous going in. However, with the tips above, you can mediate these difficult workplace conversations with confidence, compassion, and positivity.

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