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How to handle difficult conversations at work

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Conversations at work tend to be smooth and easygoing, then there are times when they are uncomfortable, such as a disagreement or a conflict with someone, negotiating with your manager for a raise, giving tough feedback to a team member, or assuring angry customers or stakeholders.

All these scenarios often lead to difficult conversations and let’s be honest — they can be tricky. There’s often a lot riding on the outcome of the conversations and being a part of such interactions can be overwhelming. 

Like it or not, difficult conversations are inevitable, especially if you are in a leadership role. However, being able to handle them is a valuable skill and it contributes immensely to your professional success. To quote Tim Ferriss, “Your success is based on the number of uncomfortable conversations you’re willing to have”.

This article shares key insights on how you can handle difficult conversations at work and maintain your influence in your environment. 

Before the conversation: 

If you anticipate an intense conversation with a person or a group, prior preparation can make a huge difference. Here are some of the ways you can prepare ahead: 

  • Understand the context – What’s the purpose of this conversation, and what does it help achieve? Also, how is your point of view relevant to the purpose of the conversation? This helps you see the overall picture, and approach it accordingly. 
  • Be clear on your point of view – People often struggle in conversations when they aren’t sure of what they need to say. Having clarity on your point of view helps you communicate with certainty. Some of the ways to gain clarity are by validating this with someone or gathering data that supports your point. 

During the conversation:

Once you are in the conversation, there are certain practices you can follow that diffuse the tension and brings forth a constructive discussion: 

  • Setting expectations – Outline what the conversation is about, and what is an acceptable outcome to all the people involved. This gives people a reference point at the very outset. 
  • Understand other’s point of view – During conversations, it helps if you listen actively and understand where the other person is coming from. In the words of Stephen Covey, “Seek first to understand, then be understood”. When you make an effort to understand the other person’s views or concerns, you are better placed to address them. 
  • Stay centred – Your body language and energy plays a key role in such situations. People respond favourably to a calm demeanour, and it becomes important for you to be aware of your emotions and body language in order to stay centred. 
  • Focus on what’s right – Steering the conversation to ‘what’s right’ rather than ‘who’s right’ can be a great way to manage differences of opinion. This keeps the discussion more objective. 

While managing difficult conversations can take a lot out of you, it goes a long way in building your interpersonal skills and your resilience. You may not control others’ thoughts or feelings, but you can certainly focus on how you interact with others and respond to them. 

Arpan Roy is the Director and Co-Founder of Arman Consultancy, a business focused on Leadership and Sales Consulting and Training.

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