Your deadline looms. The team is heads down, headphones in. You’re all rushing to the finish line. Then things hit a snag. A problem appears, as they tend to do at the most inconvenient times. The project lead makes a unilateral decision you don’t think is the best approach to solve the issue.

Do you:

A) Confront your lead and address your concerns.

B) Put your headphones back in, pound away at your keyboard, and keep your mouth shut.

If you chose B, you’re in pretty good company because 70% of people avoid having difficult conversations at work.

“As the workplace becomes more difficult to navigate, employees are less likely to engage in conversations they deem difficult or uncomfortable — especially when confrontation is required.”

-Bravely, Understanding the Conversation Gap Report

That’s understandable. Workplace conflicts can be a little like choosing your own adventure. And the path to least resistance is usually the preferred one.

It’s easier to shy away from conflict. Because there’s a fear of rejection from our peers and managers. However, conflict isn’t necessarily a bad thing and can lead to better work.

Never fear. We’ve got your survival guide to having those difficult conversations so you can live to tell about it.

Don’t Fear Difficult Conversations

Difficult conversations come in all sorts of flavors. It can be like the scenario above, a disagreement on direction. Or it can be an upcoming 360 degree review. Maybe asking for a promotion or more responsibility. And it might even be as simple as seeking feedback on your work and your performance.

“You're not learning anything unless you're having the difficult conversations.”

-Gwyneth Paltrow, actress and founder of Goop

Nevertheless, starting the conversations can be overwhelming. It’s far too easy to anticipate a negative outcome before the conversation’s even begun. You’ve also probably had a few workplace confrontations go sideways, leaving a bad taste in your mouth.

Sometimes it’s easier to pick battles you can win and avoid ones you can’t, as workplace advisor Mark Leruste points out in this video.

Workplace consultant Mark Leruste on tackling difficult conversations at work. (Credit: YouTube)

However, avoidance can fester resentment and cause burnout. So it might be easier in the long run for your own well-being to toss out fear and have the conversation. As Leruste says, eliminate the expectation or outcome you want. Have your big ask in mind and be open to co-creating another solution when you get that unexpected “no.”

Frame the Discussion

Okay, you’ve decided to confront the issue head on. You’re not going to put your headphones back on and work away as if nothing is bothering you. You’re ready to rumble.

Whoa, not so fast, partner. You don’t want to go barging up to your lead or your follow teammates with a full-head of steam. You want a productive conversation, not another time-consuming meeting where everyone stares at the clock or IMs on their laptops.

Before calling a meeting, you’ll want to frame the conversation in some way.

You can use either email or a disagreement framework to acknowledge opportunities and highlight possible solutions. At Matter, we prefer to use our own Decision Disagreement Framework Template, which we created to help get us through difficult conversations.

Matter’s Decision Disagreement Framework
Matter’s Decision Disagreement Framework

Here’s how the framework works:

1. Set the parameters. Decide if the stakes to the business are great enough that a discussion is even warranted. In other words, pick if this disagreement is the best battle to fight.
2. Deliberate the options. Come with a few potential resolutions that you can discuss with the team. Outline their pros and cons. Be sure to send these prior to any meeting. Remember discussions shouldn’t turn into a complaint session.
3. Vote, Decide, Document. Each stakeholder should have a say in the decision to be made. Out of the potential resolutions, which one is the majority? Now it’s up to the decision maker to have the final say. Once that decision has been made, be sure to document the rationale behind it. Also be sure to share the decision with the remainder of the team or the entire company if needed. Make sure decisions are transparent and not hidden behind closed doors.

Effective leadership also involves following up on the impact of the resolution. Did it work? Was there a need to reassess and come up with a better approach? Even if the conflict wasn’t over a major product or company decision, it’s best to be able to frame the conversation and follow-up with any action items.

For personal performance, it’s always best to schedule a follow-up meeting to see how things have progressed since the last conversation.

Bring the Snacks and the Right People

Just because a conversation is difficult doesn’t mean it has to be uncomfortable and confrontational. Therefore, once you’ve framed the conversation, you’ll want to create a safe and comfortable setting for the conversation.

"Clearly, there aren't enough positive moments or interactions happening in the workplace. As a result, our economy suffers, companies suffer, and individual relationships suffer."

-Tim Rath, bestselling author of “How Full is Your Bucket”

Here are a few tips on how to do that:

  • Set the meeting agenda. Once you’ve completed your framework for the discussion, use it to create and send out a meeting agenda via email to those involved. You want to ensure the meeting will be productive and doesn’t waste anyone’s time. You’re peers will appreciate you for that.
  • Don’t invite everyone and their mother. Not everyone needs to be in the meeting. Be sure those mostly impacted by the outcome of your discussion are in the meeting. No more. No less.
  • Bring snacks. Okay, you don’t really have to bring snacks. But some coffee and something to nosh on might go along way to make everyone at ease rather than bracing for a fight.

Abdicate Control and Keep Emotions in Check

Once the conversation has started, you can’t control what others are going to say or do ultimately.

If you’ve called the meeting, you’ll want to lead it not micromanage it. Keep it on track but not step over everyone and dominate the discussion with your opinions and yours only.

Just because a conversation is difficult, the meeting doesn’t have to be as well. (Photo Credit: Pexels)
Just because a conversation is difficult, the meeting doesn’t have to be as well. (Photo Credit: Pexels)

During the meeting, here’s what you’ll want to do:

  • Don’t come with expectations. You have to be prepared for the reality that you might not get your way. And that’s okay. Something better might happen. Or it might not. But at least the conversation is being had and you’re being heard.
  • Welcome dissenting opinions. Leave judgement out of the meeting. Be sure to listen to others. You want others to feel heard as well. There’s no point in having a discussion that’s one sided. You’ll also want to watch others body language, which can say more than what’s actually said.
  • Keep emotions in check. One way to allow others to express their opinions is keeping emotions in check. It’s just a conversation. Don’t make it personal. If you’re leading the meeting, ensure it doesn’t turn into a complaint or critique fest of someone’s work or attitude.
  • Be ready to fight. But don’t get ready to rumble. Fight for the ideas that matter to you but don’t turn the meeting into a throwdown. Argue your point passionately and rationally without ranting and raving.

Empathy rather than steadfast stubbornness will result in a better overall solutions rather than an impasse. Teacher Michelle Stowe says empathy is critical to getting through difficult conversations. And that we can cultivate empathy, training ourselves to connect better with others emotions and thoughts.

Educator Michelle Stowe discusses how empathy is the heart of any difficult conversation. (Credit: YouTube)

Agree to Disagree

Ultimately, a consensus isn’t always possible. You might not even have a single action item out of the meeting. That happens.

If things get heated, agree to disagree and table the discussion until cooler heads prevail. Sometimes it’s just enough to have the difficult conversations. Ultimately, you’ll feel better about yourself and your work if you stand up and speak up. In the process, you’ll learn more about yourself and grow from the experience. And that can be more important than any solution.


Matter: The Future of Feedback

Matter helps professionals become the best version of themselves. We believe everyone can achieve mastery, learn, grow, and be respected by their peers. People perform better when they receive monthly peer feedback (proven by science too!).

Matter makes 360-degree feedback easier, pleasant, and more productive. Grow over professional and soft skills like empathy, listening, communication, and verbal communication. Level up and take charge of your career with Matter.

Cover Photo Credit: Pexel