How to Have Difficult Conversations – Part Two

How to Have Difficult Conversations – Part Two

Sometime men in the workplace hesitate to confront women in the workplace as they are afraid that they will cry. Sometimes women will hesitate to confront men because they are afraid they will explode with anger. No matter your gender, there is nothing worse than losing control during a confrontation and breaking into a rage or into tears in the workplace.

If you are incredibly well prepared for the conversation you are less likely to over-react but if you are caught off guard and feel that you are losing control of yourself and your composure, try to focus on your breathing. One technique is called 4-7-8. Take a breath to a count of 4; hold the breath for 7 counts and then release the breath to count of 8, deeply emptying your lungs. Repeat at least 3 times. Another suggestion is to take a step back – literally. By removing yourself from the drama even by a foot, you may be able to short circuit the rage or the tears. Pay attention to the “look” on your face. Is it tense and frowning? Try relaxing it while you are breathing and/or taking that step back.

The main thing is to calm down and focus on your priority of getting all of the relevant information out in the open. Both parties must share their points of view so that there is a pool of shared meaning, of common understanding. Remember the definition of conflict – any situation in which your concerns or desires differ from those of another person. You will need to ensure that the different concerns or desires are really there. This can be as easy as sharing your perspective, your information with another person. It gets difficult when that sharing of information is done in such a way that you or the other person is offended and don’t feel safe enough or encouraged to add information to the conversation.

How can you ensure that you are getting all sides of the story? The way we tell our story can either shut people down or help them open up. Finger pointing and blaming others are sure to shut the other person down.  Using tentative language may be the best solution. Describe the problem by saying, “I’m not sure you’re intending this . . .” or “I’m not even sure you’re aware. . .” Think about how you would respond if someone said to you: “You insulted me when you didn’t support me in front of the client.” Now think about your response to this statement: “I felt insulted when you didn’t support me in front of the client.” Which statement supports your feeling of safety and which statement makes you want to fight back? Which statement contains facts and which statement contains conclusions?

How about these two statements: “You are so self-centered – you never help out when you have down time.” and “Yesterday when you had some down time I saw you reading your book. I felt frustrated because I really could have used your help.”? Share facts not conclusions. Not only are conclusions possibly wrong, they also create defensiveness. Taking the time to think about how your story sounds to the other person before you share it can help ensure that the other person is encouraged to share their side of the story. Thinking about not only what you say but also how you say it, will help others see you as approachable, as someone who is safe to have difficult conversations with. Invite dialogue. Ask the other person if he or she sees the problem differently. If you are open to hearing others’ points of view, they’ll be more open to yours.

You will need to clarify what you really do want for yourself, others and the relationship and clarify what you really don’t want. Each conflict (and its resolution) is really all about whether our personal goals are more important (assertiveness) than the relationship (cooperation) or vice versa. Sometimes it is best to choose cooperation (the relationship) over assertiveness (your goals) and sometimes it may be best to choose assertiveness (your goals) over cooperation (the relationship).  Pay attention to your motives and figure out how you would behave if this were what you really wanted. Ask yourself “Is it better to be right or in a relationship?” You may have to forget about wanting to win, seeking revenge or hoping to remain safe. You may have to disagree with the boss in the hopes of making a better choice rather than being quiet and potentially keep your job. Be incredibly well prepared and determine the best way to approach this conversation – with cooperation or collaboration or competition or accommodation?

The important piece is safety – your safety and that of the others in the conversation, even when that other person is your boss. When we feel safe we can say anything and we can receive “bad” news. When we believe the person has our best interests at heart, when we trust their motives and ability. Think about what you can do, verbally and non-verbally, to increase everyone’s feeling of safety, to diminish the likelihood that things will go towards the silence or violence.

Assume the best of others. Perhaps the other person is unaware of the effects of his or her actions. Enter the conversation as a curious friend rather than an angry co‐worker. When we aren’t feeling safe, we start withdrawing and hiding, getting ready for fight or flight.  When the other person chooses silence, they decide to stop contributing to the shared pool of meaning. They may mask their silence with sarcasm or avoid by talking but not about the real issues or they may withdraw by exiting the conversation or the room.  If it’s not silence then it may be violence which is the response to the lack of safety in the conversation. Violence consists of any strategy that is used to get your own way including controlling by cutting others off, speaking in absolutes, using directive questions to control the conversation, labeling by putting a label on people or ideas so they can be dismissed or even attacking, making the person suffer rather than winning the conversation.

Setting the stage for the conversation is critical to its success. It is easier to set the stage if the relationship between you and the others is a healthy one to begin with and much more difficult if there has been a long history of unresolved conflict. Talking face‐to‐face and in private is more likely to work out better. Don’t chicken out by reverting to e‐mail or phone.  Choosing the best time and place may make the difference between success and failure of the conversation. You want to be able to focus on the discussion and you want it to be easy for the other person to focus as well. Having privacy and an environment that is free from distractions will be conducive to good conversation.


You may want to list a number of ways to start the conversation and chose the best one after you’ve said each one out loud. Being well prepared will give you the confidence to be successful when faced with difficult conversations.



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