It’s pretty rare to find someone who actively enjoys conflict. In fact, most people would tell you they’d rather just avoid it, especially with their work colleagues. But while avoiding that difficult conversation may hit the pause button on confrontation, it can result in an even stickier situation later on.

Whether it’s talking to a client about expectations or bringing up an awkward topic with an employee, knowing how to approach and master difficult conversations in the workplace is one of the most effective ways to contribute to a healthier culture. 

Speaker and corporate communication expert Thomas Crum says that “The quality of our lives depends not on whether or not we have conflicts, but how we respond to them.” No matter the industry, organization, or individual, misunderstandings, disagreements, and overall conflicts are going to be part of working with others. Rather than trying to avoid them, have a game plan in place to help you recognize the issue, deal with it, and move on in a positive way. 

The art of communication in difficult conversations

The key to making difficult conversations beneficial to everyone involved is knowing how to properly communicate with those with whom you’re in conflict. It’s human nature to want to be heard and, in most cases, we’re conditioned to see things through our own lens of experience and emotion.

Taking the time to hone your communication skills—starting with listening—makes all the difference. Instead of feeling like the start of an inherently negative experience, these conversations have the power to heal past issues and set expectations for future behavior. 

Why avoiding difficult conversations won’t work

If you tend to take the path of least resistance when it comes to conflict, you might be tempted to just avoid the conversation altogether. When you do that, however, you could be contributing to a toxic work culture.

Without people who are brave enough to be direct and honest in tricky situations, what started as a small problem can result in greater systemic issues. You might be able to put your own needs and wants on the backburner for now, but are you willing to let conflicts last indefinitely? 

Difficult conversations might seem hard at first, but taking the first step toward resolving conflict can help to keep issues from spreading. Talking to a hard-to-deal-with customer about their expectations can help to adjust their needs and wants before they write that scathing review online.

Speaking up about a manager’s communication style or discussing performance with an employee can help keep the lines of communication open, improve morale, and even help retain valuable talent. 

5 tips for successfully dealing with difficult conversations

You can’t avoid conflict forever, but you can definitely improve the way you deal with it. With the right approach, small issues don’t have to become big problems. Taking the time to lead a discussion with empathy and understanding helps you see conflict from new perspectives so you can find a solution that makes sense for everyone. Here’s how: 

Check your intent

Before you speak up in a difficult conversation, run an internal “intent check.” Say you had a negative performance evaluation, for example, and don’t agree with your manager’s assessment. You want to continue the conversation, but what’s your intent? If your feelings are hurt or you want to argue your case further, you’re not ready to have a difficult conversation. 

You’re seeking to be heard rather than to hear. If, however, your intent is to understand your manager’s perspective and find ways to improve your performance, you can view the discussion through that lens, knowing that you have the right intentions for the interaction. Before you bring up a tough topic, ask yourself why you want to talk about it and what you hope to achieve. 

Skip the script

Too often we go into difficult conversations with a prewritten script in our heads. We think we know exactly what we want to say—and how the other person will respond. Of course, any good communicator will tell you that it’s best to have a plan, but skip the script.

Conflict resolution requires a high degree of mutual respect, responsibility, and compromise. Know what you want to say and what you’d like to gain from the conversation, but be willing to listen to the other side. You might be surprised at someone’s perspective and find that the best solution is usually found on common ground. 

Try Radical candor

In the book Radical Candor: Be a Kick-Ass Boss Without Losing Your Humanity, Apple and Google exec Kim Scott creates a compass for honest and direct management. It’s what happens at the intersection of genuine listening, personal empathy, sincere feedback, and an utter lack of ego.

Radical candor incorporates praise and criticism in equal measure without making them inherently positive or negative. Rather, all feedback is seen as a communication tool to solve problems and work smarter. This level of candor helps relieve the pressure we put on everyday conflict and conversation so they’re a means to an end instead of the main event. 

Switch perspective

Here’s the thing about conflict: Everyone assumes they’re the “good guy.” Shifting your perspective to try and see things from someone else’s point of view can help you communicate more effectively.

Before you start the conversation, take a minute to consider how the other person is feeling now and how they’ll feel during and after the exchange. Will they feel embarrassed? Attacked? Even blindsided? Exercise your empathy muscles by honoring what the other party might be feeling and validating those emotions. 

Not sure how they feel? Ask! You can’t prevent someone from reacting to a difficult conversation, but you can listen, lead, and problem-solve with empathy. 

Take a break, circle back, and follow up

If you feel like you’re losing control of your emotions during a difficult conversation, it’s totally acceptable to stop and take a break. Whether you feel hurt, frustrated, or unheard, negative emotions can poison healthy communication and result in reductive arguments.

Knowing when to press pause on the conversation by saying “I don’t feel like we’re getting anywhere; let’s work on some solutions and come back to this later” can give you time to dial down intensity and collect your thoughts before continuing. Then, you can follow up with the other party to reaffirm your solutions and pave the way forward. 

How to successfully incorporate difficult conversations into your leadership training

Incorporating the topic of difficult conversations into your leadership development training can be a transformative step in nurturing leaders who excel in communication and conflict resolution. Here are some ways to seamlessly weave the vital skill of navigating difficult conversations into your leadership development training, empowering your leaders to communicate effectively and lead with confidence:

  • Start by talking about why having difficult conversations matters for leaders. Share stories or examples that everyone can relate to, emphasizing how it can lead to better teamwork and a happier workplace.

Incorporating the topic of having difficult conversations into your leadership development training should be an enjoyable and supportive experience. Keep it friendly, engaging, and focused on practical skills to help your leaders excel.

The road to stronger leadership includes difficult conversations

Communication skills are usually categorized as “soft skills,” which include characteristics and natural personality traits that are tricky to measure. Unfortunately, while leadership training often focuses on communication skills like listening and emotional intelligence, it might lack a focus on how to effectively manage difficult conversations. 

Any workplace relies on the integration of different personalities, perspectives, and emotions, and it’s impossible—not to mention potentially toxic—to expect everyone to remain positive and conflict-free every day.

Instead, training your leadership to deal with hard topics, big emotions, and uncomfortable situations helps prep them for the reality of day-to-day management. Train your workforce to lead with empathy and honesty and you’ll see almost immediate benefits to your workplace culture, employee motivation, and overall well-being.

Ready to train your managers to tackle difficult conversations? Drop us a line and we’ll help you build soft skills training solutions for real results.