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Avoiding a Difficult Conversation? Here’s How to Face it Head-On

4 tips on how to handle tough conversations in the workplace

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BY Tanya Mariano - 27 Jun 2017

PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

Dread—it's a feeling that's potent enough to make people want to dodge the unappealing yet ultimately rewarding task of confronting difficult issues squarely.

But in the workplace, these issues—disagreements on how things should be done, sub-par performance, unprofessional behavior, and personal conflicts, for instance—need to be talked about. Otherwise, the business will suffer. Avoiding them may keep the anxiety at bay for a few days, but it leaves the underlying issues unaddressed and unresolved, like a festering wound.

Here are a few tips on how to handle these difficult conversations at work.

Timing is key

"To start the process, schedule the conversation when any initial anger and frustration has subsided and you're feeling calm," suggests Robin Camarote in this Inc. article on why people shouldn't put off having these tough conversations.

There's a time to be angry, of course, but in order to have a constructive discussion, cooler heads must prevail.

Shahab Shabibi, co-founder of Manila-based Machine Ventures and was the CEO of the now-defunct personal assistant services platform HeyKuya, says there's no need to panic when you find that you have to be the bearer of bad news to people who trusted you.

In this article, he tells Inc. Southeast Asia: “In the world of entrepreneurship, uncertainty is part of the journey and sometimes this vagueness includes some bad news. I don't believe there is any reason to panic while pondering on how to communicate this news with shareholders and investors.”

Have a face-to-face chat

In the same article, the founder and CEO of Philippine dating app Peekawoo, Valenice Balace, says she went through hard times when the company ran out of money and the software developer they had hired ripped them off.

Balace, who had to break the news to investors, insists that talking about tough issues should happen in person. She had sent emails to their stakeholders and investors telling them about Peekawoo’s situation, but some were so busy that they weren't able to read it.

“In person is still better. At least you get to talk about things. Be honest about what you’re feeling,” she says.

Ask first, talk later

Camarote says it may be a good idea to “start with a question and a sincere interest in learning about the issue from the other person's perspective.” For instance, when talking to an underperforming employee, start by asking if there are aspects of the job that he finds particularly challenging.

Listen first, try not to interrupt, and don't react defensively. Practice active listening: acknowledge what they've said, and repeat key statements to make sure you're on the same page. After hearing their side of the story, share yours.

Keep in mind that the goal is not to win an argument, but to understand and be understood. After all, it's supposed to be a conversation, not a debate.

Plan how to move forward

“Once you feel you each have a clear understanding of the past, you're ready to shift gears and focus on the future,” writes Camarote.

Work together to come up with solutions to the problem, and try not to reject their suggestions prematurely. It may also be helpful to delineate each other’s non-negotiables so you'd know which solutions are feasible and which ones aren't.

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