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Approaching Difficult Conversations in the Workplace

Catherine Richardson, Regional Director of Private Practice, Connections Wellness covers how to best handle professional conversations and responses that work.
By Connections Wellness Group |

What is the best way for a manager to approach a difficult conversation with an employee or a co-worker?

One of the keys to having a productive conversation is reverse engineering what led you to this point. Then, make some notes regarding what you want to do differently and what you need the other person to do differently. Rehearse what you will say and how you will say it. Choose a time that is convenient for both of you and does not have a meeting directly after. Following the meeting, give the person time and space to process the information and then follow up with an email about the next steps.

What are the top three things to avoid when in conversation with a colleague in the workplace? 

You want to avoid “you” statements that are accusatory and instead use “I” statements that help to communicate your experience. Do not assume that you know how the person will respond or react. Instead, go into the conversation with an open mind. When you are speaking with someone, resist the urge to multitask. This is especially difficult in our digital age. However, it is imperative that in our interactions with colleagues we communicate that they and what they have to say are valuable enough for us to stop what we are doing and listen.

If you have been approached for what seems like it may be a tough conversation, how can you best prepare?

Take a breath! There is nothing more nerve-wracking than getting that ominous email from your boss regarding a vague meeting. If there is an issue you have in mind that may have been the genesis, identify some ways you have sought to improve in that area along with what you plan to do going forward. If you are unsure about the topic that will be discussed, go in ready to listen and receive what is being said. Also, clear some time on your calendar after the meeting to process and chance to catch your breath.

If you are unsure about the topic that will be discussed, go in ready to listen and receive what is being said.

If you are on the receiving end of negative news or feedback from a manager or colleague, what is the best way to respond so things don’t escalate?

Having some canned responses for when your emotions are running high can be an effective way to keep your cool amid a tense situation. Consider phrases such as “Thank you for that feedback; I’ll consider it going forward” or “I’ll need a moment to think on that more, but I appreciate you taking the time to speak with me.” Then, following up after you have had time to process through email or a face-to-face meeting can be a great way to give yourself an opportunity to collect your thoughts, without appearing un-coachable or resistant.

Should my company have a policy or any type of training about potentially difficult conversations in the workplace?

Yes! You want to prepare your team for these conversations by getting them comfortable with having them. Set aside some time in your ongoing training cadence or bring in an expert to give you some valuable tips. Have someone facilitate practice runs where each member of your team practices being on the giving and receiving end. And then debrief after to honestly discuss what makes this hard and what each of them can do to grow in this area going forward.

Catherine Richardson is a licensed professional counselor in the state of Texas. In her clinical career that spans more than a decade, she has participated in and led teams in various capacities, including clinical quality management, performance and compliance, risk management and crisis intervention, and diversity, equity, and inclusion. She is a firm believer in the Brene’ Brown saying that “Clear is kind and unclear is unkind” and strives to live out this motto in the everyday management of her team. Outside of work, her passions include hiking, skiing, trying every cuisine known to man, and globetrotting with her husband and two sons.

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