I am often asked, “How do you handle difficult conversations at work?”  The most important thing you can do is be prepared to respond rather than react.  Carefully script the most effective responses you are going to say in these tough conversations.

The process of conversation takes in at least five steps:  opening, feedforward, business, feedback, and closing.

The first step is to open the conversation, usually with some kind of greeting: “Hi.  How are you?”  “Hey, how’s it going?”  Greetings, of course, may be nonverbal as well.  In normal conversation, the greeting is reciprocated with a greeting similar in degree of formality and intensity.  Openings are also generally consistent in tone with the main part of the conversation.

At the second step, you usually provide some kind of feedforward, which gives the other person a general idea of the conversation’s focus: “I’ve got to tell you about…”  “Did you hear what happened in the meeting this morning?”  Feedforward may also identify the tone of the conversation: “I’m really concerned and need to talk with you” or the time required “This will take just a couple of minutes.”

At the third step, you talk the “business,” or the substance or focus of the conversation.  The term “business” is used to emphasize that most conversations are goal directed.  This is the longest part of the conversation and the reason for the opening and the feedforward.

At the fourth step, you reflect back on the conversation to signal that as far as you’re concerned the business is complete: “So, you may want to follow up with…”  “Wasn’t that the best outcome you could expect given…?”  The other person may not agree that the business has been completed and may therefore counter with, “I’m not sure exactly what you are asking me to do.” “But what is the budget and timeframe we…?”  If there are questions, you will need to go back a step and continue the business.  You want to make sure people feel heard.  You want them know you understand the person’s point.

The fifth and last step is the closing, the “good-bye,” which often reveals how satisfied both parties are with the conversation: “I hope you’ll call soon.”  The closing may also be used to schedule future conversations: “Let’s meet for lunch at twelve.”

The next question people ask me goes something like this, “How do YOU handle difficult conversations?

By being prepared physically and psychologically, having pen and paper ready.  Consider the seating arrangement, the environment and any barriers to open dialogue.  Keep an open-mind and get their side of the story.  Take your time, don’t be in a hurry, and listen comprehensively.  Review the conversation for factual accuracy and review your performance as a listener.

After an episode where communication was strained or riddled with tension, people wonder and often ask me, “What do you do after an uncomfortable conversation with a coworker?”  One time I read that emotions last approximately forty straight hours before a person’s biochemistry returns to homeostasis, the condition they were in, physically and psychologically, before the uncomfortable conversation.  So, in a day or two, maybe over a cup of coffee simply ask, “How are you feeling or what do you think about the conversation the other day?”

I have some friends and family members that work in loving, caring, and supportive organizations.  They are surprised to hear that some people suffer in work environments that have challenging conversations.  They will ask me, “What challenging conversations can take place within the work environment?”  The Dialectical Model is a good place to look.  The Dialectical Model is the perspective that people, in virtually all relationships, must deal with equally important, simultaneous, and opposing forces.  For example, in an argument with someone important to you, the desire to win (satisfying the need to be “right”) clashes with the social need of maintaining a good relationship.  It depends on your point of view.  These can be uncomfortable conversations.

When we work in teams or work groups we are sometimes an audience to rough and tough conversations.  When I deliver speeches, seminars and workshops on team building and teamwork, participants often as, “How can you make everyone feel heard and comfortable sharing their point of view during tough conversations?”  A basic rule in interpersonal communication is that before you respond to a person’s feelings, you need to check to make sure you really know what the other person actually feels.  This is especially important in difficult conversations at work.

The best way to check out whether or not you accurately understand how a person is feeling is through a perception check.  A perception check has three parts:  1.) Repeat the comment or describe the behavior, 2.) offer at least two possible interpretations of the comment or behavior, and 3.) then ask a question and request clarification about how to interpret their comment or behavior.  By perception checking, you can make everyone feel heard and comfortable sharing their point of view during tough conversations.

Since I mentioned I deliver speeches, seminars, and workshops on team building and teamwork, people question their role on a team when it comes to expressing negative thoughts or pointing out things that could or should be improved.  If you are a team player, you need to play your part and focus on the team’s success, so share your thoughts honestly and confidently.  Being a team player during difficult conversations at work can help team members discuss actions to take, to work through the issues, and maintain, if not improve, the work environment.

If you need to find a motivational keynote speaker, plenary speaker, breakout speaker, concurrent session speaker, seminar leader, or workshop facilitator who can deliver in-person, virtually, or via prerecorded session, Kit Welchlin earned an M.A. (Master of Arts Degree in Speech Communication), the CSP (Certified Speaking Professional Designation from the National Speakers Association), the CVP (Certified Virtual Presenter Designation from eSpeakers), and is a nationally recognized professional motivational speaker and author and can be found at www.welchlin.com.