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How to AVOID a difficult conversation at work

February 07, 2020 09:20 IST

We often say, 'I know that.'
Instead, a better thing to say it is, 'Why do you feel so? Can you please explain?'

Why most employees don't speak up at work

Image published for representational purposes only. Photograph: Kind courtesy

The Gift of the Gab: Book coverWhy are we bad at handling difficult conversations?

This difficulty arises primarily because of two reasons.

First is our inability to speak up. We fear speaking up.

Second is the unwillingness or the inability to accept the message.

The difference probably is in how we react.

If someone tells us at office, 'This work has not been well done. I expected you to do better' or 'This is a horrible piece of work from you,' you tend to take this personally.

You do it more because the relationship in an organisation is more impersonal and transactional.

Had this relationship been with someone whom you had worked together for years, sharing a very good camaraderie, you would have adjusted yourself after listening to this message. Neither would the person saying it have an inhibition telling it nor the person listening to it.

Similarly, if you have to confront such situations, we commonly follow three approaches.

The first approach is, 'Sir, if you do not like my work, please let me know and I will start looking out.'

The second approach is, 'Sir, you are a genius. Had I got a mentor like you, I would have reached the skies till now.'

The third approach is to avoid confrontations. This category of people will remain silent and start searching for a new job or keep quiet, suffering silently.

The first group are the 'hot headed' people, unwilling to listen or respond appropriately. They react.

The second group of people are the 'boot-lickers' who find out cunning ways of getting away with things. This is not speaking up your heart and mind, but deceiving yourself.

The third group are the 'escapists' and 'global peace lovers'. They 'live and let live' although things around them are incorrect.

None of them are right in the way they approach difficult conversations…

Have You Done the Sanity Check?

Before you embark on taking up difficult conversations, you need to put some checks in place.

The first is to ask, 'What has happened?'

Inquire within yourself. In this you try to differentiate between what you feel versus what actually is and what your preconceived notions are.

There is a difference between what you feel vis-à-vis what actually happened.

The 'data' or the information you have is important for the conversation. Do not allow your assumptions to come in between.

Second, keep your emotions in check and keep your mind open. An open mind acts wonderfully well. Keeping your mind open and emotions in check will allow you to accept or listen to others.

Remember that you are not saying a 'no'. You are providing an alternate path.

Third find out the source of the problem. Even if this takes time, spend some of your efforts in identifying the root cause.

A lot of disagreement is because both the parties are not updated about the right set of information. Assumptions and feelings are a reason for disagreements.

Hearing things from people and believing them to be true is the worst of all and the primary reason for disagreements.

The next step is to set an objective for the difficult conversation.

How do you want to end the conversation? Do you want to maintain the relationship after the conversation, just inform, tell the person how bad you felt or do you want the other person to make some changes to his behaviour?

In some cases the objective could be like knocking your head against a wall, like changing the behaviour.

If you encounter such situations, try for a couple of times before you give up on it.

You may also try alternatives, such as asking him to meet a coach or give him training which would help.

Sometimes even the best of the plans backfire. People whom you are talking to start shouting, crying and threaten to report.

You suddenly feel clueless on 'what's next'.

Keeping or thinking of an alternate course of action is also important.

You may just decide to conclude a discussion or be silent and wait to hear out the other person or try to adopt an alternate path of redressal without harming the person in any ways. In some cases, just allowing it to 'let go' also makes sense. At least you tried.

Should we or should we not start with a difficult conversation? Unfortunately, there are no checklists for it nor a definite answer.

The Don'ts of a Difficult Conversation

When you start the conversation, there are a few things that you must keep in mind.

First it is important to listen as much as speak.

You should double your ability to listen than to speak. Remember to give the other person a good empathetic hearing.

Ask questions and rephrase. Keep the discussion on track.

Remember that it is a conversation.

Second, be confident of what you say. You have all the information with you and you are clear with what you want to say. Therefore, display confidence in what you say as well as in your body language.

Do not get defensive like, 'Oh…It was not my fault. It just happened.'

Third, come straight to the point. Start with, 'I would like to tell you that….'

Do not beat around the bush. Be direct, yet very specific.

Fourth, do not throw your weight around; mind what and how you say. Just because someone reports to you and you have the authority, avoid using them.

Be careful with your words. Using indecent language and swearing or cursing could be extremely detrimental.

Avoid jumping to a conclusion or judging the person.

Some other don'ts of difficult conversations are interrupting while talking, multitasking while talking, pointing your fingers, calling out names, yelling, crying and being rude.

Avoid leaving the conversation without an agreement. Find out a common solution.

Difficult conversations are really not difficult. They are just like other conversations; the problem comes only after we 'label' them as difficult ones.

Talk as if it is just another conversation. Never script it down.

Words to Avoid in a Difficult Conversation

Words are powerful and what we say is equally important to how we say it.

We use words, knowingly or unknowingly, in a context which could mean altogether different, later to apologize. 'I am sorry, but I really did not mean to hurt you.'

The problem often lies with the meaning of the words and how we say them. While different usages and contexts to words could be infinite, here are some of them for you to consider.

'I think this is a bad idea to merge the two units together.' Instead of that you could say, 'I think we should look at all the possibilities before merging the two units together. We need to be careful before we start doing that.'

While giving bad news to people, like firing a vendor, you can say, 'You have not been supplying us what we want and there has been uninformed delays. We are therefore cancelling your contract.'

An alternative way to say this is, 'Two areas which you require to improve are maintaining the delivery schedules and delivering the right products. Unless you improve on these parameters, we will not be able to take your services.'

During the course of your conversation, saying, 'My immediate priority is to close the reports. That is what my boss has asked me to do' sounds much better than 'I will not be doing this. That is not why I have been hired for.

We often say, 'I know that.' Instead, a better thing to say it is, 'Why do you feel so? Can you please explain?'

Some words can bring the conversations to a dead end. They kill difficult conversations, such as 'wow', 'that's cool' and 'interesting'.

Conversations also get killed with certain words, like, 'Mac, the targets you have set to deliver in this quarter are very difficult.' The response comes back as, 'Let's see'. This is a conversation killer.

Instead, it is better to respond as, 'I know they are difficult, but we will work out to make this achievable.

Avoid the usage of 'weasel words'. These are used when someone wants to actually give a clear answer or seem like they've given a clear answer, but have said something vague. For example, using 'often', 'some', 'many', 'possibly'. Others such as 'Many people say', 'It is claimed', 'We are told', 'People often believe' weaken the difficult conversations.

Avoid the usage of 'you'. For example, 'You are the team leader and it is your responsibility to inform me about the warning signs of this project.' Instead you can say, 'Being the team leader, a little proactiveness in warning me would have helped in avoiding this.'

Another example of this would be, 'You don't know your stuff.' A good way to rephrase this is, 'I am unable to understand this.' Remember, 'I' is safer than 'you' in difficult conversations.
Use 'and' more than 'but'. The latter is associated with a negative feeling.

For example, 'I know you all have put in lot of hard work, but….' However, the 'and' stance makes it sound more pleasant. 'I know that you all have put in a lot of hard work for the last couple of weeks and you had to stretch yourself beyond the normal working hours….'

Keep your negative vocabulary in check. At least while using it, make it a little more pleasant to the ears.
For example, 'I knew you will not be able to do this work' or 'Nothing is more important to you than making the lives of others miserable.'

Instead of this, a better way to say it is, 'Being a little prompt would have helped you close this work in time' or 'A better professional approach is expected from the employees which results into better team bonding.

Excerpted from The Gift Of The Gab: The Subtle Art Of Communicating by Hory Sankar Mukerjee, with the kind permission of the publishers, Sage Publications India Pvt Ltd.

Hory Sankar Mukerjee