As far as difficult conversations go, workplace-related ones appear to be in a league of their own. Research by the Chartered Management Institute (CMI), for example, revealed that British workers find it harder to ask a manager for a pay rise than to dump a partner.

The CMI’s study of 2,000 UK workers found that two thirds of respondents (66 per cent) felt stressed or anxious if they were aware that a difficult conversation was pending, while 11 per cent reported sleep disturbances and even nightmares as the dreaded event drew closer.

Like death and taxes, difficult conversations are one of life’s inevitabilities. When fear has not erupted into full-scale panic and paralysed thinking, it is usually about something, and we need to pause to identify what that something is. Paradoxically, fear makes reflective pausing difficult; thereby blocking one of the essential measures we need to take to counter it.

Whether we call it fear or anxiety – and fear is perhaps intensified anxiety – it’s the only issue that gets bigger the further we run away from it. Unless, that is, we can wrap it in thought or bathe it in our higher cognitive capacities. It then becomes possible to name it, rethink it, and re-describe it in ways that make it more approachable and manageable.

Naming is a crucial first step, and it might even help to quell those sleepless nights and stretches of stressed anxiousness.

Here is a breakdown of the five main causes of fear/anxiety over difficult conversations identified by the CMI study:

  • 43 per cent said not knowing how the other person would react was their chief worry
  • 31 per cent identified failing to get a point across adequately
  • 29 per cent feared being in a confrontational situation
  • 29 per cent worried about getting upset or emotional
  • 21 per cent feared the other person getting upset or emotional

These are large percentages. Next time, I’ll start to explore why difficult conversations can be beneficial to all concerned if they are handled well.

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