Difficult Workplace Conversation Tips

Difficult conversations are an integral part of many challenging, fast-paced and demanding workplaces. The complexity and discomfort associated with difficult conversations run the gamut — firing someone you like, delivering tough performance reviews, confronting disrespectful or unprofessional behavior, and confronting a colleague about their offensive body odor. The bottom line is there are many subjects that we find difficult to talk about in workplaces. How we handle them can make the difference between a great outcome or having a miserable (and unresolved) problem.

While handling difficult conversations can be challenging, there are strategies that can improve the outcome:

  • Be prepared. Preparing for a difficult conversation is always a good idea. Can you imagine a lawyer going into trial unprepared or a politician who hasn’t prepared talking points for a press conference? Take the time to prepare a written “cheat sheet” — talking points that will help you keep focused. This is particularly helpful if you anticipate a highly emotional response.
  • Identify your understanding of the problem. Clarify the issue for yourself and be prepared to address this in the conversation. Your idea of what the issue is and the person’s reality may be very different.

An objective of a first discussion, particularly about a complex or systemic problem, may be simply to come to an understanding of what the problem or issue really is. Using the “what the video camera would have captured” approach — versus emotional reactivity or hearsay comments — can be helpful.

  • Establish your intention. Define where you want to end up as a result of this conversation. What is at stake? What do you want for yourself, the person, your relationship and others the situation is affecting?
  • Anticipate discomfort. Have a plan for self-soothing as well as a de-escalation strategy if things get emotional.
  • For very difficult situations, get help. Find a colleague, mentor or outside resource to review, discuss and help you prepare for the discussion. An impartial third-party perspective may provide valuable insight and help you clarify and prepare. Role-play the anticipated conversation and get feedback — including about how your tone and body language are coming across.

Anticipating how the person may respond in this practice session (ask your partner to mimic how the person might act) may give you new approaches and coping ideas.

While in the difficult conversation:

  • Describe how the situation has affected you on an emotional level. Genuinely inquire about how the other person is feeling.
  • Demonstrate your concern for what you imagine it’s like to be in his or her shoes. Try to acknowledge and understand his or her position. This isn’t necessarily agreement; it’s understanding perceptions.
  • Use curiosity to help manage your anxiety and foster an open dialogue. Asking open-ended questions can help here: “What has this been like for you?” Authors Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton and Sheila Heen (Harvard Negotiation Project) write about the importance of shifting from a telling conversation to a learning conversation in their book “Difficult Conversations.” In other words, use inquiry versus blame.
  • Identify how you have contributed to the situation.
  • Get clarity and agreement about what changes must take place. While lessons of the past are important, what does the future solution look like?

Indicate what you can or are willing to change. Make clear what you want and need. Clarify agreements or commitments and define consequences for future behavior — both good and bad. These are key steps often missed by many managers.

  • Finally, document! It is important to provide a written record of issues and agreements, particularly for highly sensitive, personal or ongoing issues.

Managing in today’s dynamic workplace requires a broad base of leadership, communication and people skills. The ability to manage difficult conversations effectively is one of the many challenges required for successful leadership.

Done well, with planning and preparation, the end result can be very positive — on people, relationships and performance.

Invest in yourself by hiring me as your coach! I can help you learn, develop and grow your leadership and emotional intelligence abilities.  I coach leaders all over the world via Skype.  Call me:  360 682 5807 or email: mmoriarty@pathtochange.com

Stop Workplace Conflicts

Workplaces today are stressful — tight deadlines, heavy workloads, high expectations of excellence combined with common realities of limited resources, inconsistent direction, team environments and interpersonal challenges. Conflict is inevitable.

While disruptions, creative differences and missed expectations are part of everyday work lives, it’s how conflict is dealt with that makes the difference between a healthy and dysfunctional workplace.

The pinch-crunch conflict model, developed by Jack Sherwood and John Glidewell, helps us understand the importance of resolving conflict while the issues are minor before they escalate into a full-blown feuds and battles. The model identifies the importance of sharing information and renegotiating expectations when pinches occur.

Too often, the reality is when we are “pinched” in the workplace, we fail to voice our concerns and choose to keep our thoughts and feelings to ourselves. We worry about rocking the boat or hurting others’ feelings or simply hope the behavior won’t continue.

In the meantime, the offending individual typically goes on offending, many times oblivious that their behavior has caused a problem.

Because the missed expectation has not been dealt with or communicated, the disappointing behavior continues and “pinches” accumulate. Frustration and resentment build, creating even more problems. Eventually these accumulated and unresolved pinches turn into “crunches,” full-blown, highly charged and potentially explosive situations resulting in managers asking, “How in the world did we get into this mess?”

Workplace crunches can end in explosive situations. Tensions, stakes and emotions have escalated. Unresolved crunches can result in lowered morale and performance, people giving up (resigned that the situation will never improve), hostile work environments and employee turnover.

It’s important to handle pinches before they turn into crunches. Waiting just makes them harder to resolve. If you find yourself in a workplace pinch, here are a few tips to consider:

  • Voice your concerns early, even over small disagreements, rather than waiting or avoiding addressing them.
  • Attempt to identify and address the real issue. Dig and be curious — you may have only the partial picture.
  • Focus on the problem behavior versus making it personal. Describe the behavior that you observed without your personal interpretations, judgments or assumptions.
  • Communicate your intentions, including the desire to improve your working relationship.
  • Negotiate expectations. Clarify and agree to each other’s role responsibilities.
  • Generate realistic options to meet established expectations.
  • Seek agreement on next steps.

Handling pinches effectively often results in increased trust, confidence and improved relationships. Workplace relationships and teams are strengthened when differences are dealt with successfully. Wise managers recognize that problems and conflict are a part of the workplace. They don’t assume that they won’t have any problems; they recognize it’s their job as a leader to deal with problems before they become disasters.

The challenge for managers is to create and maintain an environment that not only allows but encourages healthy conflict.

For this to be successful, they need to foster and support open dialogue and a process to allow pinches to be identified and resolved before turning into full-blown crunches.


These are common workplace “pinches”:

  • Unrealistic workplace expectations
  • Confusion over roles
  • Different standards for performance or behavior
  • Feeling unappreciated or taken for granted
  • Communication misunderstandings

Invest in yourself by hiring me as your coach! I can help you learn, develop and grow your leadership and emotional intelligence abilities.  I coach leaders all over the world via Skype.  Call me:  360 682 5807 or email: mmoriarty@pathtochange.com

Unhealthy Conflict Hurts Workers and Business

Unresolved workplace conflict is stressful for participants, their bosses and everyone in close proximity. Yet conflict is a common workplace reality — as human beings we naturally have different values, points of view or ways of communicating.

Most of us don’t choose our co-workers (anymore than we choose our annoying relatives), yet success in today’s team environment requires us to find a way to resolve differences.

Let’s start by making the distinction between healthy and unhealthy conflict. Healthy debate on workplace teams often leads to better strategy and decisions and should be encouraged. Being accountable on a team may mean that others will challenge you to do a better job or follow through on a commitment — these are not reasons to head for the human resources department. Unhealthy conflict is very different — it interferes with people’s ability to do their work successfully and, in the extremes, involves harmful or abusive behaviors.

The challenge for most managers is knowing when and how to intervene. Avoiding it won’t solve anything. Unresolved conflict just festers and resurfaces. In extreme cases, managers need to draw a well-defined boundary and lay out consequences for unacceptable behaviors. Individuals who contribute to a hostile work environment must be dealt with swiftly and decisively. As the boss, it is your responsibility to establish an environment that enables your people to be successful. Any kind of negative escalating conflict that is disruptive to the work environment warrants an intervention.

Most successful interventions involve bringing the parties together with a mediator to discuss and commit to making the changes necessary to resolve the conflict.

Here are some intervention guidelines in resolving unhealthy conflict.

  • Start by establishing ground rules for acceptable behavior such as:

One person speak at a time. Speak for yourself and not for others. No personal attacks or put-downs.

  • Allow each an opportunity to share their stories so each understands the other’s experience. There are two sides to every story — none of us views the same event, interaction or situation in exactly the same way. Encourage both parties to identify what is theirs to “own” in the conflict (i.e., How did they contribute to the situation?)
  • Clarify job descriptions, roles and behavior expectations. Often the source of workplace conflict is overlapping or misunderstood roles or “turf.” Establish single-point (one-person) accountability for responsibilities, tasks and results. A common denominator for most workplace conflict is disagreement around “shared” expectations — some version of, “That is your responsibility, not mine,” or, “If you would only do your job!” This typical turf war is often the result of a gap between what one participant believes should be and what he or she perceives is being delivered (or not) by the other. Bosses often need to clarify turf and responsibilities to help close that gap. Get participants clear on whose responsibility is what by when.
  • Ask participants to identify what specific actions they would like from the other to resolve the disagreement. For example: “I would like responsibility for all client communication,” or, “I want Joe to submit his report to me by 5 p.m. each Friday.” A tip: Help them identify what they want more of, less of, stopped or started.
  • Create accountability for a plan to move forward. Participants should walk away with shared (preferably written) agreement about who will be responsible for what in the future. Plan to meet again to check on how things are working.

If you aren’t comfortable attempting this kind of mediation or if the conflict has gone on a long time and/or the stakes and emotions are high, it may be time to bring in someone like me as outside help — someone with conflict resolution expertise who can serve as an objective third party and with nothing vested in the outcome of the conflict. Outside experts are often successful where internal resources fail (human resources people are not often seen as being impartial) to bring real or sustained changes.

Expert facilitators, like me, can help:

  • Identify and clarify the “real” issues.
  • Regulate the conflict with a process that brings order and safety to participants.
  • Interrupt a frequently escalating cycle.
  • Help participants develop new and effective behaviors for handling differences moving forward.

Invest in yourself by hiring me as your coach! I can help you learn, develop and grow your leadership and emotional intelligence abilities.  I coach leaders all over the world via Skype.  Call me:  360 682 5807 or email: mmoriarty@pathtochange.com

Conflict Avoidance is Bad Management

Conflict is a natural element of high-performing workplace teams. When conflict is managed well, it can be a highly effective means of identifying and resolving tough workplace challenges, often resulting in improved relationships and solutions. Avoiding conflict, discouraging it or allowing chronic unhealthy conflict to remain unresolved can be disastrous to organizational health. There are human and financial costs to conflict avoidance.

Organizations lose countless dollars each year to unresolved conflict in lost productivity, performance, employee turnover and absenteeism. Lost opportunity costs include the improvement or solution that might have resulted from creative collaboration (versus black holes that emerge when employees refuse to deal with each other). Morale also is affected — not only between participants but among people around them. People who are embroiled in conflict often are under great stress. Many report not sleeping well and being unable to focus at work.

Other costs to unresolved conflict:

  • Miscommunication resulting from confusion or refusal to cooperate,
  • Quality problems.
  • Missed deadlines or delays.
  • Increased stress among employees
  • Reduced creative collaboration and team problem solving.
  • Disruption to work flow.
  • Decreased customer satisfaction.
  • Distrust.
  • Split camps
  • Gossip.

As a manager or leader, if you are avoiding conflict, you aren’t alone. The majority of my clients are in the conflict-avoidance camp. Managing conflict effectively is daunting for even the most seasoned leaders. Unfortunately, for many managers, their answer is to avoid it, even if it means that the challenge or situation is allowed to fester at the expense of the organization.

In today’s team environment, healthy debate and difference is vital. It’s a necessary element of discovery and generating creative solutions to complex problems. Unfortunately the debate process can be uncomfortable for many people. We all have different comfort levels with conflict. Some easily get emotionally reactive, others quietly stew and others bow to the bullies — or those with internal political clout — in the room. Most of us learned how to fight fairly (or not) from our parents. A lucky few had great parental role models for conflict resolution and have the skills to foster collaboration and win-win scenarios. Most of us have to learn new strategies to convert workplace conflict into positive outcomes.

Personal experiences and learned behaviors establish our primary response toward conflict. To work through conflict effectively, start by identifying feelings. The potential for unprofessional reactions to workplace conflict results when we allow our emotions to rule us versus letting our emotions inform us. Being aware of your feelings is a good thing; emotions help us determine the importance of a situation. The danger is when individuals allow their extreme emotional reactions to drive their behavior. Being aware of one’s natural reactive tendency and being able to deploy self-soothing strategies can go a long way toward reducing emotional reactivity.

Teaching employees practical tools for dealing effectively with conflict, disagreement and difference is smart business. Many managers have never learned effective conflict-resolution tools and find great benefit from skill development and training in this area.

There are many useful approaches to dealing with workplace conflict that can be taught — through training, skilled intervention and mentoring and coaching.

But what if you are dealing with a truly difficult situation or are stuck in a conflict you just can’t seem to resolve?

First, acknowledge the conflict honestly. Just how damaging is the conflict? Identify costs, both realized and opportunity costs. Remember as the boss, you get what you tolerate. How far are you willing to let this go? For effective conflict resolution, the boss will need to play a critical role in establishing organizational expectations, including behavioral boundaries and consequences of meeting (or not meeting) those expectations.

Effective leaders create an environment that allows open and constructive exploration of conflict issues and avoid the “he said, she said” tendency. While some leaders have exceptional skill in managing through highly conflicted scenarios, others do not. In this case bringing in outside help can bring much-needed relief and resolution.

We all need help and support from time to time. Just like you call in a plumber for a stopped-up drain — there are specialist resources and conflict facilitators that will help in highly charged conflict scenarios.

Invest in yourself by hiring me as your coach! I can help you learn, develop and grow your leadership and emotional intelligence abilities.  I coach leaders all over the world via Skype.  Call me:  360 682 5807 or email: mmoriarty@pathtochange.com