Last Updated on March 20, 2023 by Dave Schoenbeck
Managing difficult conversations is a crucial component of good leadership.
When done right, confrontations enable radical honesty and facilitate trust—knowing that even the most fearless leaders can shy away from having tough conversations at work. But unfortunately, few people enjoy conflict, and these encounters have the potential to leave a bad taste in everyone’s mouth.
How do you handle difficult conversations at work?
There are two books I’ve found that hone in on how to have difficult conversations at work: Crucial Conversations by Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, Ron McMillan, and Al Switzer, and Difficult Conversations by Douglas Stone Bruce Patton and Sheila Heen.
Crucial Conversations focuses on navigating difficult conversations where emotions may be high. Handling these conflicts poorly can lead to rifts and bruised feelings, but there are ways to manage the tone and control the direction of the conversation to avoid these harmful outcomes.
At work, we’re faced with tough conversations: raising performance issues with employees, delivering bad news, receiving negative feedback on our work, or realizing we need to change direction when something is not working. Some of the key takeaways from Crucial Conversations can help us make these conversations better:
- People lash out when they feel threatened. By creating an atmosphere of safety, you can allow for honest communication without raising hackles. Look for signs of fear and ensure all parties know they can express their opinions.
- Let facts, not feelings, rule the day. Getting caught up in how a specific issue makes us feel is easy, but our emotions can lead us astray. We tend to give them more weight than they deserve. During difficult conversations at work, focus on the facts rather than the parties’ feelings.
- Stay humble and curious. The goal of these conversations should be mutual understanding, not for one side to feel like they’ve won. Be open to the fact that your initial impression may have been wrong. Resist the urge to shut down or get defensive. Think before you speak, even if you need to take a moment to respond with grace.
Difficult Conversations focus on our tendency to avoid certain types of communication that we perceive to be uncomfortable—avoiding difficult conversations does a disservice to us and those around us, as without those moments of direct connection, we can’t have genuine, honest relationships with other people.
The idea behind this book is that three different conversations are happening behind all difficult conversations at work. They are:
- The “what happened” conversation: This concerns our perceptions of the facts. What happened, and what should have happened instead? Who is at fault?
- The “feelings” conversation: This is how each party feels about the situation at hand. Are you angry, defensive, ashamed, or embarrassed? Have you hurt someone’s feelings, or have your feelings been hurt?
- The “identity” conversation is what the situation means for you. Are you remaining consistent with your values, or has something jeopardized how you see yourself?
Knowing how these three conversations can influence the more extensive discussion can help us manage our emotions and remain attuned to how the other parties might perceive the situation. On the other hand, letting any of these conversations take over can lead to more conflict, as your focus might differ from the conversation others are trying to have.
Overall, improving how you have tough conversations with your team can lead to an atmosphere of honesty, security, and trust. However, avoiding conflict in the short term will only lead to more significant disputes in the long run.
Managing difficult conversations is just one facet of decisive, effective leadership. Want to develop your leadership skills even further? Sign up for my free blog articles and have my top tips in your inbox weekly.