Difficult Conversations at Work

Increased heartbeat, racing thoughts, a pit in my stomach – these are a few ways my nerves manifest when I’m minutes away from having a difficult conversation with a colleague. Although the discomfort is visceral, it is temporary, and the benefits are lasting when making room for this type of discomfort in workplace relationships.

A conversation is difficult when we’re candid with a colleague about information that is uncomfortable to deliver and to receive. Common examples include constructive feedback on the way work is performed or relational feedback on the way an employee’s behavior is negatively impacting others.

In my work of coaching and training leaders of teams, facilitating difficult conversations is frequently a top competency leaders cite as a skill requiring development. There is an abundance of research and tools on this subject: podcasts, YouTube videos, and books galore. Two of my favorite practices I share with leaders in growing their difficult conversation skills are to trust through relational tensions and to allow space for processing.

Like breaking down our muscles in weight lifting to make them stronger, healthy working relationships can become stronger after bearing the tension of uncomfortable conversations. Once the temporary tension subsides, respect and trust between colleagues often strengthens. I frequently remind myself of this truth before facing a difficult conversation head on.

Ever walk away from a conversation thinking to yourself “I wish I had said …”? Same here. I’m learning to let go of self-imposed expectations of perfected dialogue and to respect my need and the need of others to take time to process discussion points. It’s okay for both parties to pause and reflect before revisiting the subject. Invite your employee or colleague to continue the conversation once they’ve taken time to process and think more deeply about what was initially discussed.

Relationships, in and outside of work, are wonderfully complex. Growing our skills with difficult conversations helps us navigate the complexity of relationships and strengthen them. There’s great value in dedicating time and intention to how you approach your colleagues with information that may initially be hard to hear. Let’s give our colleagues our best efforts, nerves in tow, to enjoy the benefits of strong working relationships.