When to Have a Difficult Conversation

 When to Have a Difficult Conversation

Last week, I gave a presentation on Effective Communication to a group of staff members and lawyers, which dealt, in part, with how to have a difficult conversation. Afterwards, I talked to one of the attendees who was trying to decide whether he should raise an issue he has with someone who works for him. After thinking it through, we decided that he did not need to address the issue. Although his colleague was doing things differently than he would have done, she was handling the matter in a manner that is perfectly appropriate and professional.

In this newsletter, I focus on how you decide when it is necessary to discuss something unpleasant with someone. And, while I certainly do not want people to use this as an excuse to avoid important conversations, I think that it is okay to have a somewhat less rigorous standard for the workplace than you would have for your close friends and family.

What is a Difficult Conversation?

A “difficult conversation” is one that involves negative emotions. In other words, someone has done or failed to do something and their action or inaction has made you feel bad. This can take the form of feeling hurt, betrayed, disappointed, irritated, frustrated, etc. In many cases, you have extrapolated from this negative feeling and started making assumptions about the other person.

For example, if your co-worker interrupts you in meetings, you may feel very frustrated and irritated. If the behavior continues, you may assume that your co-worker doesn’t respect you, is arrogant, is trying to make you look bad, etc. And then your work relationship really goes downhill.

Lacking this type of negative feeling, the conversation is simply a negotiation or a discussion of facts. Which is not to say that negotiations are always easy, but they do not trigger the same negative repercussions.

Most People Avoid Having Difficult Conversations

It is perhaps a bit ironic that I am writing a newsletter about when not to have a difficult conversation because most people do the opposite – they avoid having conversations that they should have.

In 2007, Nationwide, the insurance company, surveyed more than 1,600 Americans to explore the different ways that they approach difficult conversations. It turns out, and this probably is no surprise, that many people avoid bringing up uncomfortable topics. 43% of married people said that they purposely avoid a difficult conversation with their spouse because they think that bringing up the topic will cause a fight. Furthermore, people take all sorts of steps to avoid these conversations, from screening phone calls, to telling lies, to cutting off all contact with a person. People went so far as to skip meals, work late unnecessarily and even physically hide from others. As a result of avoiding these conversations, one in five respondents said they have lost a friendship or estranged a family member.

When Should You Have a Difficult Conversation?

The Nationwide survey focused on personal relationships, rather than work relationships. While open communication is also very important in the workplace, a workplace is not going to function well if everyone feels the need to discuss every issue that bothers him or her.

I recommend that you initiate a conversation with a co-worker if the underlying issue is negatively affecting your ability to do your job and there is no solution on the horizon. For example, if the person who regularly interrupts you is transferring to a different department in a month, then you can probably let the issue slide. But if you are going to be working with her for the foreseeable future and you avoid collaborating with her because you no longer trust her, then you need to work out your issues.

This standard is different from the one that I would encourage you to use in your personal life. With your close friends, you not only want to resolve any issues, you want to have good personal relationships. With your co-workers, you want to get along with them and be able to work professionally with them, but you don’t necessarily need to like them. Although it is preferable, and certainly makes work more enjoyable if you like your co-workers’ company, there are probably always going to be people whose company you do not particularly enjoy. But so long as you can treat each other with respect and do your best for the greater good of the organization, that is enough.

In summary, it is important to raise issues with your colleagues if those issues hinder and will continue to hinder your performance. However, your colleagues are not your best friends. Raising every issue, particularly issues that don’t bear directly on your ability to work together, is not only unproductive, but could cause unnecessary tension.


Training Programs

In addition to management consulting, conflict resolution, and executive coaching, I offer tailored programs on a variety of related topics, including how to delegate, communicate more effectively, deal with difficult people, manage conflict in the workplace, manage up, facilitate meetings, manage your career, and network.

Please let me know if there are other topics in which you are interested. If I don’t already have a program on that topic, I am happy to develop one that meets your needs.