How to Have Difficult Conversations – Part One

How to Have Difficult Conversations – Part One


During your work life issues will arise which will affect your enjoyment of your work place. Some of the issues will not necessarily fit into the ethical, legal or regulatory areas but are about professional differences in approach to the work, office culture or office rules. Sometimes these issues can be solved with an open and frank discussion with the supervisor/employer and other stakeholders in the office environment. These issues will need to be approached thoughtfully and researched well so that you have all the necessary information to present your side of the issue professionally and rationally. Usually there is common ground to be found and movement towards the common ground can happen over time.

The Basic Principles of Difficult Conversations

Learning how to successfully have difficult conversations means that you are more likely to improve your relationships – personal and work-related – and stay in those relationships. You are also more likely to improve your health and your work life.

  • Focus on the situation, issue, or behaviour, not the person.
  • Maintain the self-confidence and self-esteem of others.
  • Maintain constructive relationships.
  • Take initiative to make things better.
  • Lead by example.
  • Think beyond the moment.

Whenever we must interact with other people there are six basic principles to remember for building trust, maintaining a positive work environment and defusing highly-charged situations with others. These are from an organization called Zenger-Miller (now called AchieveGlobal), a corporate leadership training company.

Conflict is any situation in which your concerns or desires differ from those of another person. Some instances where you may have seen conflict could include confusion about the role and responsibilities of a co-worker, conflict between two supervisors or between two employees. Responding to conflict can result in a very difficult or awkward conversation.

Some of these difficult conversations meet the definition that Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, Ron McMillan and Al Switzler defined in their book Crucial Conversations. According to them a Crucial Conversation is required when opinions vary, the stakes are high and emotions run strong. We do have choices in these circumstances. We can avoid the conversation/topic/person, face them and handle them poorly, or we can face the conversation/topic/person and handle them well.

How do we usually handle these conflicts and difficult conversations? Let’s look at the different responses to conflict.

  • Do we step up to the hot topics, assess the situation, monitor our behaviour and offer up our best work with intelligent persuasion and gentle attentiveness?
  • Do we yell, and/or withdraw, and/or say things we regret with flying fists and fleet feet?
  • Do we avoid conflict?
  • Do we argue and debate or even bully others whose opinions differ from ours?
  • Does the tone of our voice go up at the end our statements, making them sound more like a question than a statement?
  • Do we assertively ask for what we want?
  • Do we accommodate others at our own expense?
  • Do we cooperate, looking for a win-win resolution for the conflict?
  • Is collaboration our goal when there is conflict, taking the time to find the resolution?

None of these modes of conflict resolutions is a “one size fits all” solution. Sometimes it is best to avoid conflict, sometimes it is best to be directive and get your own way. Sometimes collaboration is the solution, sometimes it is compromise or accommodation that wins the day. You have five choices of how to respond to conflict.

We generally believe that conflict will go away if you ignore it. Ignoring it is very much related to the flight aspect of our fight or flight response. We think that confronting someone will result in unwanted anger. We think that dealing with conflict may result in losing the relationship and that conflict is always a negative experience. Based on a variety of experiences and our personality, each of us typically chooses one mode of conflict resolution over the others, sort of like only using only one tool from the tool box for every home repair project. Typically there is also one mode of conflict resolution that we seldom, if ever, use. We are designed for fight or flight and some of us just never learned how to effectively assess the situation and choose the most effective way to deal with conflict. Even if we have lots of time to prepare, sometimes we don’t know where to start, we don’t have any healthy role models, and all of our practice sessions have resulted in fight or flight.

Added to this is the pressure we are under to respond to the conflict that we are not prepared for, the conflict that suddenly appears and threatens to rock our boat. This may be a confrontation with a client, a boss or a spouse. There they are, in our face demanding a response and that is exactly the time when it is so difficult to think on our feet. The first thing our body does in response to this threat is to release adrenaline so that the body can respond with either a fight or flight. Since neither fight nor flight are usually the best response to conflict, your best bet is to count to ten to give your brain an opportunity to get into gear and prepare to respond more appropriately. This may give you enough time to decide to ask for a postponement so that you can be better prepared to respond. It may give you the time to decide to just focus on the other person, to breath and really listen to their side of the story without simultaneously preparing your defense. Sometimes the greatest gift we can give another person is to listen to them.


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