How to Make Difficult Workplace Conversations Easier

Here are 4 tips for helping you survive the tense workplace conversations everyone dreads.

June 15, 2016

They are the conversations that make both managers and employees cringe: There’s a problem at work, and now you have to address it. A subordinate has done a lousy job on a project, a co-worker used inappropriate speech or behavior, or you don’t see eye-to-eye with your boss on an important issue. The list goes on.
“People don’t want to have these conversations,” said Charrise McCrorey, a business coach based in northern Indiana. “They’re afraid of them. They want to avoid conflict.”
Conflict is inevitable whenever people work together, but difficult conversations don’t have to be a nightmare. Following a few basic rules will help you emerge from them with a better understanding—and a plan for progress.

1. Don’t beat around the bush

If you’re setting up a meeting to discuss a difficult subject, you don’t want to blindside someone.
“Give them a little bit of a heads-up: ‘I’d like to talk to you about your performance on job XYZ,’ ” said Jennifer Zerangue, CPA, CGMA, an associate director in accounting and assurance services for Postlethwaite & Netterville in Metairie, La.

Zerangue, an alumna of the AICPA Leadership Academy, said it’s also helpful to share an agenda or set of goals ahead of time to create a clear picture of what the conversation will cover.

2. Hold your tongue

After you’ve started the conversation with a brief recap of what you’d like to talk about, ask the other person how he or she feels about the issue. Letting him or her provide a perspective, as soon as possible, will help establish whether you’re both on the same page. It also allows the other person to feel like an equal partner in the exchange. “They are invited as an engaged participant, not as a child being reprimanded,” McCrorey said.

3. Have a heart

Come into the conversation with compassion for the other person. His or her work may be affected by personal or professional challenges you are unaware of. If the other person gets upset, focus on listening and expressing your understanding rather than getting drawn into an argument. Keep your emotions in check, and let the other party tell his or her side of the story.
Zerangue remembers a difficult conversation she had with a staff member who had done a poor job on a project. As it turns out, this staff member had received an assignment that was a bad fit—a problem resolved simply by redirecting the employee.

4. Resolution, not retribution

Go into a difficult conversation with the goal of resolving a conflict, not passing down punishment. Keep the goals of your firm or company in mind. Zerangue likes to bring a list of goals and questions to these discussions in case “you get nervous, or the other person starts talking and you forget the questions.”

Finally, don’t insist on being right. Instead, the focus of these conversations should be to create a solution to a problem. 

Eddie Huffman is a Burlington, N.C.-based freelance writer. To comment on this article, contact Chris Baysden, senior manager, newsletters for the AICPA.

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