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Employment Today, HR Solutions - Thomson Reuters

Employment Today, HR Solutions - Thomson Reuters

Employment Today Magazine

We can work it out

Courageous conversations are tough, but as Lennon and McCartney say, life is very short. Alyson Garrido explains how to address those tricky talks to improve workplace relationships.

Miscommunications, conflicts and difficult conversations are an inevitable part of professional life. These conversations, however, do not need to be a subject of fear or procrastination. While everyone has a different communication preferences and styles, there are best practices that can apply to the conversations you have been putting off or dreading.

When you first have an issue, or realise the need for a courageous conversation, start by taking a few deep breaths and finding some space to gain perspective. Then, map out your plan to open the lines of communications and practise how you conduct courageous conversations. You will likely find that the anticipation of these conversations is far worse than the actual chat.

Before jumping into the conversation, take the time to prepare. What are the consequences of inaction? While it may be tempting to sweep your concerns under the rug, you may do yourself, your colleague and your relationships a disservice by not addressing the issue. Ask yourself if the concern at hand will continue to bother you if it goes unresolved or if having a kind and collaborative discussion toward a resolution will help you both move forward.

If you have decided that you would like to deliver a tricky message via email, notice how long you are taking to write the email. If you are going over and over the text, or running the message by colleagues several times, it may be more productive and efficient to have a conversation. It’s regularly the case that a five-minute conversation, via phone or in person, saves an email that would take 45 minutes to create. If it’s a paper trail you’re after, you can always send a recap of the conversation later.

Try to put yourself in the shoes of the person with whom you need to have a courageous conversation. What motivates them? What is their preferred communication style? Does this person like to hear a lot of details or get right to the point? What types of conversations with that person have gone particularly well and how can you duplicate those experiences?

If your upcoming conversation is the result of a conflict or misunderstanding, consider what was said and, beyond that, what the person may have heard. This phase is really about understanding and empathy. If you make an effort to understand the other person it will help to remove any animosity or walls that have been built. Concentrate on similarities and shared goals rather than differences.


In anticipation of the conversation, also consider the timing. It is important that courageous conversations are conducted promptly. Particularly if you are giving feedback or addressing an issue, you will want the incident to be fresh in both of your minds. Another timing point is how to initiate the conversation. Would you like it to be fairly casual where you pop around to their office, or a scheduled conference room meeting? How and when will your message land best?

Imagine the best-case scenario at the end of your conversation so you have a goal to work toward and create a picture of what success looks like rather than mapping out the exact words you’ll use. Be sure that your intended outcome is reachable. It may be unreasonable to expect that someone will change a core belief or personality trait. What is reasonable to request and expect?

Rather than creating a script, have a rough outline of how you would like the conversation to go. If you memorise a speech, there is a risk of forgetting what you had planned or not listening to the other person’s views as you stay “on track” with your message.

Anytime you have a conversation, especially around a contentious topic, it is necessary to relinquish a bit for control. After all, there is another person involved. Keep in mind that the person with whom you are speaking may misunderstand your message, or its intent. They may also react in ways that surprise you—both good and bad.

Expect the unexpected as you may learn of a personal struggle, see tears or hear about a longstanding concern. None of these scenarios need to derail your conversation if you stay authentic and focused on your desired outcome.

Also, in delivering your message, there are words and phrases which are best avoided. Remember to stick to the topic at hand and specific examples instead of using absolutes. Words like always and never may weaken your stance, as situations are rarely so black and white.

Stick to your experiences and feelings rather than involving your colleagues. Like absolutes, saying that everyone is concerned about an issue is probably not correct and very difficult to prove. Unless asked, avoid giving advice during the conversation, saying “you should” or “if I were you” will probably not be as effective as asking the person what they think would resolve the problem.

Wherever and whenever your meeting takes place, start by making some assumptions. Assume that your coworker wants the two of you to have a good working relationship. Assume they are reasonable and kind. Assume that you two will close a communication gap during your discussion. Finally, assume that a compromise can be reached and you will both leave happy.

These positive assumptions will help you approach the conversation in a way that is non-combative and geared toward both of you reaching common ground. All relationships face challenges and you will both emerge from this conversation better and stronger.


Although these feelings are common and natural, be careful not to assign blame or make accusations. Keep in mind that this is a conversation, not an interrogation. If your discussion is addressing an elephant in the room that is likely obvious to you both, you could start with a question like “How do you think that the project is going?” or “I think we might be having some trouble communicating.”

These open-ended approaches are unlikely to put your partner on the defensive like a why question might. Why questions can shift the power dynamic by creating the impression that they have to answer to you or explain themselves. Keep the conversation collaborative with the expectation that you’ll reach a resolution together. Their input is as important as yours.

Once you have opened the conversation and your partner is sharing, sit back and listen to their perspective without interrupting. It is important to fully listen without dismissing their perspective or jumping in to defend yourself if they make an accusation. Remember that they may not have spent the time preparing that you have. After they have shared, paraphrase what you have heard to be sure you are on the same page and ask clarifying questions.

It can be difficult not to interject, but thoughtfully listening will speak volumes about how much you value the relationship and want to reach a compromise. We all want to be heard, so demonstrate clearly that you have heard their perspective. Do your best to keep your thoughts focused on what they are saying and resist the temptation to formulate your response while the other person is speaking.

Once you have both had a chance to share, explain your perspective and feelings on the situation and your understanding of their perspective. Again, avoid assigning blame or motives to the other person’s actions. Keep the conversation focused on your intended result and your experience.

It is difficult for someone to argue with something you feel. You will likely run into trouble, though, if you tell people what they need or the motivations for their behaviour, so choose your wording carefully. Instead of saying, “You keep interrupting me because you do not value my opinion” consider saying, “I feel like my comments are not heard when you interrupt me.”

When a resolution has been met, confirm your understanding of the conversation and commitment to meeting each other’s needs. How can you both bend and meet in the middle? What will allow you to work well together in the future?

Close this meeting with thanks and reiterate your commitments to one another. It’s hard to have these conversations, so acknowledge your colleague’s willingness to get to the bottom of this rift in a positive and professional way.

These courageous conversations are tough and they might not go perfectly the first time. Take the time after the conversation to reflect on what went well, what you would do differently next time and how you will implement the lessons you have learned. You may also benefit from involving a trusted colleague to obtain their feedback and perspective.

After you’ve had the conversation with your co-worker, let your gripes go. No good will come from continually dwelling on a past issue. Constructively resolving conflict means that you are both comfortable with the outcome you have reached and are ready to move forward and work together productively.

Career coach ALYSON GARRIDO works with clients to identify their ideal career path and present in the best possible light for job search and career advancement.

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