Sooner or later, everyone faces the prospect of stressful workplace conversations. Whether you’re a manager who needs to draw attention to a staff member’s unsatisfactory performance or you’ve just unwittingly detonated a bafflingly angry reaction from a work colleague with a remark you took to be innocuous; somehow or other these situations have to be managed. Too often, they’re left hanging in the air or avoided altogether, neither of which is healthy.

They may be different for different people, but you can rest assured that we all have scenarios we’d prefer to avoid. Conflict in the sense of differing perspectives isn’t necessarily bad and can be very productive, but when human emotions are powerfully mobilised during the conflict, impasses and destructive stand-offs can rapidly become entrenched.

The first thing I’d recommend is this: know your vulnerabilities. Be frank about the scenarios you know you’d prefer to run a mile from. Once you’ve identified them, talk over with a trusted colleague the specific conversation you know you need to have. Just focus on the content first, then ask your colleague for ideas on how to open the conversation and how to proceed.

Finally, be prepared. There’s nothing worse than having to improvise a response when a conversation is clearly going south. Think of some phrases you can deploy to help you out: if you’re drawing attention to underperformance, don’t miss out the fact that you also value and admire the person concerned and want them to excel. If you’re responding to an angry colleague’s outburst, confine your comments to the tactics they just used, not the person; for example: “I don’t know how to respond when your take on what just happened is so different to what I intended.” If you respond with “Why are you attacking me?” it may escalate matters more or result in a permafrost wall of chilled silence.

Don’t avoid or freeze; address.

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