How to have difficult conversations at work: 5 key steps

By Erin Eatough, PhD

Most people do their best to avoid conflict. Even when a situation is uncomfortable, it may seem like the path of least resistance is to wait out the discomfort.

However, avoiding difficult conversations doesn’t make them go away, and having them can substantially improve our work and home lives. 

Many people don’t engage with difficult conversations because they don’t know how to have them.

Many of us fear that having difficult conversations will damage our relationships or negatively impact our work environment. 

In reality, avoiding these conversations can lead to resentment and create even bigger rifts between people.

Here’s a complete guide on how to have difficult conversations at work, including five steps to help you navigate them successfully.

What you need to know about having difficult conversations

Contrary to popular belief, conflict isn’t inherently bad. 

Difficult conversations are a necessary part of working well with others. Reaching an understanding is often the first step toward creating a better work environment.

Meanwhile, avoiding conflict can cause big rifts in the workplace. These ignored conversations lead to lower employee engagement and productivity.

When employees don’t feel safe talking about work-related issues, it can create a toxic culture that impacts business success. 

Still, 40% of people think their managers won’t have honest conversations about work topics. That can make having difficult conversations seem even more intimidating. 

Managers need to learn how to have difficult conversations with employees and handle conflict at work productively.

As a leader, it’s important to demonstrate conflict resolution as soon as you identify a problem.

But, not every conversation will lead to a solution. Solutions are only one type of resolution for difficult situations. You may come up with a plan to find a solution or reach a mutual understanding instead.

Aim for understanding first. Understanding is the foundation of many solutions, so both people in the conversation must be on the same page. 

Preparing ahead of time can help you focus on having a productive conversation instead of searching for a solution.

Preparing for the conversation

Often, we go into tough conversations with our desired outcome in mind. When an issue weighs on you, it’s normal to imagine a solution without consideration for the other people involved.

It’s crucial to remember that these types of conversations should be a dialogue, not a monologue. Self-reflection and empathy play key roles in having an open discussion.

Without properly preparing for the conversation, it’s possible that a tough talk could end in hurt feelings. Examine how you are feeling about the situation before you have the conversation, so your emotions don’t surprise you.

Reflecting on your role in the dilemma can help you see what’s at the core of the issue. For example, a manager can reflect on how they could better support an employee with poor performance before confronting them.

Then, exploring the other person’s point of view can offer a new perspective. Imagining the other person’s perspective helps you garner empathy before the conversation. 

72% of employees think empathy drives motivation, so empathy is a must for managers. Plus, 84% of employers say empathy leads to better business outcomes. Empathy in tough conversations can make everything run more smoothly. 

If you’re worried about how to have a difficult conversation with your boss, you’re not alone. 20% of Americans are uncomfortable talking to their managers. But, preparing for the conversation can make the process a bit more manageable.

Take a deep breath and relax. You will get through this!

5 steps to help you navigate through difficult conversations

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