8 Steps to Navigating Difficult Conversations in the Workplace

Having difficult conversations with your team is a simple fact of life in today’s workplace. Conflicts of all kinds inevitably arise within every company, often due to the diverse nature of the modern workforce. Differences in values, views, communication and personalities can cause discord and tension among staff and leadership alike.

When the time comes to address such situations, these same factors make the subsequent conversations all the more challenging. Fortunately, effectively navigating these workplace discussions isn’t all that hard: it just requires some strategizing. Best of all, mastering these techniques and conversations can ultimately lead to improved relationships, morale and productivity at all levels.

Here are eight steps to take for making these difficult conversations–and your job–easier and more effective.

1. Act promptly: Having difficult conversations isn’t fun, so it may be tempting to simply avoid them. But ignoring such discussions is asking for trouble. Conflicts that might seem minor can fester and ultimately impact the entire company.

It’s vital to deal with workplace conflict as soon as possible and take meaningful steps to resolve it. Trivial issues can quickly snowball into bigger ones. And if you’re not seen as dealing with the issue, you’re likely to lose respect among your employees. (Not to mention that in most cases, the sooner you address the problem, the easier it’ll be to solve.)

2. Be prepared: Before having the conversation, make certain you’ve gathered all of the necessary information and documented the incident. Give careful thought about the issues to be discussed. As with any important conversation, try to see the matter from each person’s point of view.

From there, you’ll be better prepared to deal with potential objections, emotional reactions and sticking points.

3. Choose the proper time and place: Having the discussion at the appropriate time and location is crucial. During peak production periods, the center of a crowded cafeteria at lunchtime, near the end of the day as people getting ready to leave… not good choices. You and everyone else involved will be distracted.

Find a time when everyone involved can focus on the matter at hand and not feel rushed. You’ll also need a suitably private space for uninterrupted conversation. A small conference room is a good choice, since it’s neutral territory and can be closed off. Otherwise, find an office or even a picnic table outside if it’s quiet and set apart from busy areas.

4. Identify The Real Issue: Determine the crux of the matter quickly (and ahead of the meeting). While sometimes it’s easy to identify the important issues behind the conflict, this can get tricky.

So before the main talk, make sure all parties agree on the actual issues by having them share their side of the story. Listen carefully to each person, and make note of their key points. Then during the actual conversation, stay focused on these areas and avoid straying off topic. (This will also help you to keep the discussion civil and avoid emotional outbursts or tangents.)

5. Consider your state of mind: Check your emotions before starting the conversation. If you’re upset about the situation (or even just having a bad day), you might consider putting the discussion on hold. Although you don’t want to wait too long, meeting when you’re in a foul mood can actually make things worse.

6. Respect Differences: Most disagreements have varying shades of gray, especially when communication styles differ and workplaces are diverse. Acknowledge all opinions and points of view—without letting those aspects sidetrack the discussion—and help each side understand the other’s experiences.

7. Document Everything: In today’s highly litigious society, thoroughly documenting workplace disputes is crucial. This process should be a collaborative effort and include the related conversations and solutions you implemented to resolve the issue.

Following the conversation, have employees read and sign the proper forms indicating they understand what was discussed, are aware of any disciplinary actions taken, and agree to abide by the related corrective-action plans.

While this can be laborious and time consuming, it’s a vital step in protecting your organization. If you’re faced with a lawsuit stemming from the situation, thorough documentation can save the company (and you) from disaster.

8. Follow Up: Don’t assume all is well once the conversation is over and your documentation is complete. Follow up with all affected parties after an appropriate amount of time has passed, meeting with each person individually to see how they’re adjusting. This helps ensure the underlying conflict is being resolved and the agreed-upon solutions are being carried out properly. It also demonstrates that you truly care about your team members and want them to succeed.

Exactly how long you should wait for this check-in depends on the situation, the parties involved and your company culture. We suggest specifying this ahead of time in the documents each party signs after the conversation.

Difficult conversations can be super uncomfortable, and they’re most likely not your favorite part of the job. However, such talks are an essential part of building strong team relationships and creating a healthy workplace environment.

By following the above steps, you’ll have a helpful framework for effectively navigating challenging discussions. By mastering these strategies, you can prevent petty disputes from erupting into total chaos while making your team happier and more productive.


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