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Say it right: How to navigate a difficult conversation

Robert Half International

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There's nothing easy about difficult workplace conversations and, unfortunately, these awkward talks aren't uncommon. At some point, you may need to ask a colleague to redo his work on an important project, for instance, or let your boss know you can't meet the deadline she set.

Following are some tips to help you successfully navigate these challenging conversations:

Evaluate the circumstances

Before you say anything, weigh the pros and cons of speaking up. How well do you know the person? How important is it that you say something? What have you done that might have contributed to the situation? What type of response can you expect from the other person?

Make sure you understand the facts before approaching someone about a problem so you can go into the conversation with a well-thought-out game plan. For example, if you have bad news to report, you should also have a solution in mind. If you have a complaint to share, consider if you deserve any of the blame.

You'll also need to keep your audience in mind. If you're broaching a difficult subject with your manager or an executive, you'll have to walk a finer line than with peers.

Think before you speak

Take a step back if you're angry or frustrated. Things you say in the heat of the moment can do more harm than good. Give yourself some time to come up with the right response.

Consider time and place

Unless an issue is extremely urgent, avoid initiating a difficult talk when the recipient is likely to be distracted or focused on something else. You might wait until your boss has caught up on email in the morning, for instance.

Another tip: Never confront someone in a group setting. That's a good way to embarrass the person and put him or her on the defensive. Wait until you can have a private conversation.

Be polite

Your tone and body language can reveal any underlying anger or frustration. You don't want your comments to sound more accusatory than conciliatory, for instance. If a colleague plays music that you find distracting, a remark like "Do you have to listen to this noise so loudly?" probably won't help you convince the person to turn it down. Instead, try: "I'm under a tight deadline and having trouble concentrating. Would you mind using headphones, at least until I'm done with this project?"

Also, strive to take the high road even when a co-worker doesn't. Sarcastic comments or unnecessary criticism in response to verbal jabs from your counterpart will just cause the conversation to deteriorate. If you sense your frustration level rising, suggest that the two of you continue the discussion at a later time.

Reach an agreement

Try not to end a conversation without coming to some sort of resolution, and understand that solving the issue may involve a compromise. The colleague who annoys you by playing music may agree to use headphones in the morning if she can use speakers in the afternoon, when things have slowed down.

In most cases, how well you navigate a difficult conversation depends on your positioning. You might find people are more receptive to your idea if you present it as a way to become more efficient or get more accomplished, for example. Avoiding words like never or always also can help because these terms can put others on the defensive.

Finally, always listen to and respect the other person's perspective. You are, after all, having a conversation. Keeping this in mind as you broach a challenging topic will help you set the stage for a successful exchange.

Robert Half International is the world's first and largest specialized staffing firm with a global network of more than 350 offices worldwide. For more information about our professional services, please visit www.roberthalf.com. For additional career advice, follow us on Twitter at www.twitter.com/roberthalf.



Last Updated: 07/06/2011 - 12:04 PM


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