How To Handle A Difficult Conversation At Work

A number of my clients have been faced with having difficult conversations at work recently. Maybe it’s a coincidence, maybe it’s just that time of year but it’s been a subject of a few of my coaching sessions of late. Whilst all of their situations are different, the stress created by the prospect of the forthcoming conversation is palpable for all of them.

With that in mind, I thought I would write my next post on how to handle a difficult conversation. They are an inevitable rite of passage in our working lives and something we need to have a well-thought-through strategy for. So here are the things you should take into consideration when facing your next difficult conversation at work:

  • Control your emotions.

Try to stay calm throughout the conversation. The calmer and more centred you are, the easier it will be to maximise your chance of having a productive conversation. Whether you like it or not, if you find yourself getting tearful or angry during the conversation you risk losing your credibility. I am not saying that showing emotion is bad and I certainly don’t want to foster the unhelpful stereotype that women are ‘overly emotional’ but in this scenario, you must keep them in check.  Keeping a cool and level head will enable you to maintain your professionalism and executive presence and allow you to maintain control of the conversation.  

Do some breathing exercises before the conversations to focus yourself and to mentally associate mindful breathing with a calm state of mind. It will then be easier to recreate that association during the conversation. If all else fails and you know emotions are bubbling up to the surface, pause the meeting and ask to reconvene in 10 minutes. Find a quiet place or get some fresh air and collect your thoughts.  

  • Face the conversation head-on. Get it done.

Whilst it sounds obvious that you should simply face something head-on, I am aware it’s a lot easier said than done. As human beings, we don’t like confrontation. It’s not uncommon that in our desire to avoid conflict, we stick our heads in the sand and put off doing it. If it needs to be done, don’t put it off. Franklin Delano Roosevelt once said that “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself” and I really prescribe to this. How often have you put something off only to find it was never as bad as you thought it was going to be. Procrastinating never makes anyone feel better so steel yourself and get it done.  

  • Know what your going in position is.

Don’t allow yourself to be a passenger in the conversation. Know what you want to say and what outcome you are looking for. This is not about being close-minded, dogmatic, or unreasonable, it’s about being clear on your position. There will be certain things you will want to say; minimum outcomes that you want to achieve. Work out what those non-negotiables are and make sure you get them across. Don’t allow the conversation to be waylaid and don’t agree to anything you aren’t comfortable with. There is nothing worse than coming out of a conversation angry with yourself because you didn’t say what you mean or you caved on something important to you.   

  • Listen

It’s so easy to walk into what you know will be a difficult conversation with only your perspective in mind but not listening to others leads to unproductive conversations. I stress this is not about giving in to the other person’s point of view or agreeing with the other person if you don’t want to. This is particularly important if they aren’t being reasonable or constructive. I don’t want to contradict what I said in the previous point. It’s about going in with an unbiased perspective and really listening to what the other person has to say. The worse that can happen is even after listening, you still disagree. If so, it is what it is. Perhaps however by being open-minded you will find there are things you haven’t considered. Also, remember that there is nothing that will bring a conversation to a halt faster than two people who aren’t listening to each other.

  • Use it as a learning opportunity.

Once the conversation is over, pat yourself on the back for just getting through it and go and have a cup of tea or a large glass of wine. The fact that you have faced it head-on and even had the conversation is a cause for celebration. You did something difficult and you got through it. That is a sign of resilience and personal growth.

A few days later, reflect upon the conversation. What did you do well? What could you have done differently? What have you learned about the experience? I encourage all of my clients to reflect when they have had to face a difficult conversation. Whilst stressful, they are a rite of passage. Difficult situations or challenges are how you learn and grow. I also encourage my clients to understand the roles both parties played in the situation. It’s important that you take responsibility for your side of the story but also you allow others to take on responsibility for theirs. Equally important as being open to others is not taking on their baggage and not being responsible for their ‘stuff’. Own your part and leave them to own theirs.

You’ve got this.