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Embrace the Tough Conversation

Think about a “difficult conversation” you have had at work - it may elicit a variety of emotions and memories. Most of us can recall at least one example of a challenging and perhaps uncomfortable discussion:  providing feedback to an underperforming employee, informing a customer that their project is behind schedule and/or over budget, or telling a teammate that he is not pulling his weight.   Although this post will focus on those charged with initiating the tough conversation, bear in mind how it might feel to be on the other side of the table.

There are myriad reasons why individuals delay or avoid these uncomfortable interactions rather than facing them, and here are just a few:

  • FEAR.  This could be fear of the other person’s reaction (anger, defensiveness, or even tears) or fear of not knowing what to say or how to say it.
  • False assumptions regarding the other person involved or the outcome.  If we already know how it's going to end, then we don't need to have the conversation in the first place.  Right??
  • Hope that if this controversial issue is ignored long enough, it will miraculously disappear.  This is widely known as the "bury your head in the sand" strategy.


What if you chose instead to boldly walk toward these interactions, seeing them as opportunities to strengthen relationships rather than to damage them?   This might seem counterintuitive, but communicating openly with a colleague or customer during  tough times can go a long way toward improving trust and mutual respect in the long term.

For example, have you ever been responsible for delivering bad news to a client? If so, have you ever opted to leave this unfortunate information via voice mail or email after regular business hours?  It is safe to say that this avoidance tactic rarely makes the issue disappear and, more often, just allows it to fester.

What if you were to contact your client as soon as you realize there is a problem? Yes, there is a good chance that she will give you an earful.  Once the air is cleared, however, together you can work on strategies to improve the process moving forward.  Simply keeping customers "in the loop" during a difficult process can improve trust.  It demonstrates that you care about the relationship and are committed to working through the current issue.  People value those who can step up in a challenging situation, admit that mistakes were made, and learn from them.

Another commonly avoided conversation involves providing feedback to someone that is underperforming or made a mistake.   Most people want to do their jobs well and like to know if they are on the path to greater responsibility, a more challenging position, a larger raise, etc.  Praise is certainly appreciated and useful, but knowing which  behaviors might be career or promotion limiting is just as valuable.   Learning about our shortcomings, while sometimes difficult to hear, is critical because most of us cannot see these things for ourselves - that's why they call them "blind spots".

Providing employees, or even colleagues, with constructive feedback can improve not only their individual performance, but possibly that of the entire team.  A culture is created where people can learn from their mistakes as well as the mistakes of others (no one learns from problems that are swiftly swept under the rug).   Leaders have a responsibility to share information that will provide their team members with opportunities to increase their skill sets and improve desired behaviors, all leading toward greater levels of engagement and productivity.

These are just two examples of why it is important to create an environment of open communication at work.  Avoiding conflict and uncomfortable discussions may initially seem like the path of least resistance.  Experience has shown us, however, that the problems often get worse if they are not addressed (and they rarely disappear).   View these situations as opportunities to flex your leadership muscles, to engage your team and to create more trust within customer relationships.

Is there a tough conversation that you have been avoiding?   Would having that talk remove a huge weight from your shoulders?    Please contact me at michelle@acceleratingchange.org to discuss how you can more effectively manage this or other uncomfortable, but necessary, conversations within your team or organization.   

If you have an example of how you successfully handled a tough conversation at work which ultimately strengthened an employee or customer relationship, please feel free to share it.    Next time, we will dig deeper into how to more effectively plan for these difficult interactions.

One Response to "Embrace the Tough Conversation"

  • Dan McCabe
    May 16, 2015 - 6:17 pm Reply


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