15 Ways to Approach Conflict and Difficult Conversations at Work

Conflict and difficult conversations at work are what everyone in the workplace dislikes the most and tries to avoid…

You know…those uncomfortable conversations whether they are with co-workers, subordinates, clients, vendors or anyone else you interact with.  Those of you who are conflict-averse will do anything to avoid these conversations, but nobody likes to have them and given a choice of avoiding or addressing, most would still choose to avoid.  

Avoiding conflict and difficult conversations is not the answer either.

I promise they do not go away or get better on their own.  In fact, ignoring them can have a negative impact on productivity, morale, performance, turnover and ultimately revenue.  You probably know this intellectually but still, the idea of having these conversations makes your stomach churn, your palms sweat, and your head hurt.  

A major reason for avoiding conflict and difficult conversations at work is not knowing how to handle well, in a constructive way so that the other party involved doesn’t get defensive, angry or simply shut down, leaving you further away from a solution.  

Below are 15 ways to approach conflict and difficult conversations at work,

My goal here is to give you the confidence to handle these situations effectively and give you the tools to get them back on track if things go awry.

  1. Shift Your Thinking

One of the primary reasons conflict and difficult conversations are challenging is that we assume they will be confrontational.  

Of course, if we believe they will be confrontational or uncomfortable then these conversations will be just that.   Then, as to how we approach them and what we say will come from the place of handling confrontation which may not be the best way to handle the situation.  Before beginning, shift your thinking from thinking they are a confrontation to simply a conversation.

  1. Talk to Everyone Before Making Decision

You need to get multiple perspectives to assess the situation.

When working with companies one of the complaints I hear is how often a manager will talk to one person, take their view and input and assume it’s the gospel and act.  Before you assume you know the problem before you make a decision on the facts talk to everyone who may be involved or connected. You are likely to come away with a different perspective.

  1. Accept You Are Part of the Problem

It’s easy to assume that it’s always someone else’s fault.  

They didn’t listen, didn’t care…whatever it has to be them.  There is never a relationship where it is only one person’s fault if something isn’t working.  Maybe you rushed through the communication or weren’t clear about what you wanted. Perhaps your expectations were ill-defined, or you didn’t ask enough questions to ensure you had their commitment.  Bottom line, you have to own that you are part of the problem, it’s not just the other guy.

  1. Don’t Ignore

When you are facing conflict and difficult conversations, don’t put it off until it is too late.

I said it above but it’s worth repeating.  Do not ignore these conversations, do not wait months and months afterward to talk to someone (everyone’s memory will be different), do not ask someone else to handle the conversation YOU need to have and don’t wait till your frustration is so high you can’t see straight.

  1. Stay with the Facts

When you are at your wit’s end you will likely be emotional, and emotions will affect the conversation.  

First, when you are emotional don’t have these conversations, you won’t be at your best and they won’t be handled well.  In all cases, stick with the facts and leave your emotions and feelings out of the discussion.

  1. Focus on the Behavior

It’s easy to make an assessment of someone’s behavior and what you think it means.  

They show up late for work most days so they must not care. Or they continue to make the same mistake so of course, they have a bad attitude.  As soon as you make an assessment as to why someone is behaving the way they are the conversation changes.

  1. Begin with the End in Mind

What do you want at the end of the conversation?  

Do you simply want them to understand you are upset, or is there something specific you need them to do or change?  Before beginning make sure you know what you want so you can clearly articulate it to them.

  1. Never Assume People Will Change

Don’t assume because you want someone to change, have the conversation or because you are the boss they will change.

That only sets you up for possible disappointment and frustration. I’m not suggesting throw in the towel and accept whatever happens but I am saying people don’t change unless they want to and assuming otherwise is foolhardy.

  1. Quit Trying to Make People Happy

When our focus is on making them happy, we will sugar coat what needs to be said, won’t be direct or worse forget having the conversations altogether.  

You aren’t the mom or dad who see themselves as wanting the children to be happy….that is not your job. Be respectful and professional but them being happy is not the goal.

  1. Be Flexible

What you want may not be possible for any number of reasons that you aren’t aware of.  

Consider others’ points of view, learn what is important to them and why ask what they need and demonstrate that this conversation is not it’s your way or the highway.  The old adage you catch more flies with honey than vinegar applies here.

  1. Use Superior Communication Skills

You have to use superior communication skills when handling conflict and difficult conversations.

And, if you aren’t listening well you’ll miss many points and nuances that will direct the way the conversation goes.  Ask lots of questions, do not make assumptions and listen deeply and with the intention of understanding.

  1. Make Agreements

You have to make agreements in order for these conversations to move forward.  

What will they commit to doing? What actions will you take to support them in order to achieve the goals?  By when will you each commit to the actions? What will tell you both that progress is being made? Having a conversation without having agreements is pretty much a waste of time.  You made feel better at the moment for getting it off your chest but tomorrow or next week you’ll be back having the same conversation.

  1. Don’t Say Things You Shouldn’t

We are all guilty of in the heat of the moment saying something we shouldn’t.  

Think before you open your mouth and consider how the other person will interpret what you are saying.  This is more than not using foul or offensive language. It’s anything where you are attaching blame, name-calling, threatening, sarcasm etc.

  1. Practice Makes Perfect

Take a few minutes to think about what you want to say and role play if things are really difficult.

Alright maybe not perfect but if you think about what you want to say, what you want as the outcome, what message you want to deliver and write it all down in advance you will be more likely to have an easier conversation.  Role-playing the conversation with a colleague, mentor or someone else in advance can calm you down, help you know what you want to say and how to say it.

  1. Care, Care Deeply

No one likes to feel like they are unimportant, dismissed or a slave.  

You have to take the time to demonstrate that you care about others, and this only happens when you actually do.  Whether you know it or not people know when you care about them and even if you are having a conversation about their performance or dealing with conflict how they react will depend on whether they sense you care about them as people, not simply objects.

Take any or all of these 15 ideas on how to approach conflict and difficult conversations at work, try them next time you’re faced with a situation you’d rather not have to handle.  My hope is that you’ll use them and start to feel more comfortable  and able to handle these situations effectively.

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