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Four Tips to Navigate a Difficult Conversation at Work

Blog by Lorraine Segal

Although you can’t control the outcome of a difficult conversation or meeting at work, you can take inner action to support an effective conversation and a good outcome.

A brand new coaching of client of mine was facing a difficult workplace meeting before we could even schedule our first session. She had made a complaint about long standing problems occurring at work, and was supposed to meet with both her manager and the head of HR. She asked me if I had any quick tips to give her. I told her I couldn’t give her specific help without knowing the particulars, but here was my advice in general:

I encourage you to stay calm, frame things positively, not take things personally, and offer suggestions for helpful change going forward.

She thanked me after the meeting and said my suggestions had been very helpful to her.

Why did these simple suggestions help her? Let’s explore each one.

  1. Stay calm—Even if you’re discussing something difficult which you have strong feelings about, staying calm models how you want the other people to behave and helps you be heard. Many people have a terrible time listening when someone communicates strong emotion and are less likely to be triggered if you take a steady, neutral stance.
  2. Frame things positively—Instead of just complaining or blaming, also share what is good about your workplace, and your desire to make it even better. This helps the other people feel less defensive and more open.
  3. Don’t take things personally—As the “messenger” of a problem you didn’t cause, you might be initially seen as the problem yourself. You don’t have to respond negatively or defensively, just keep reframing towards the issues and your concern.
  4. Offer suggestions for helpful change going forward—They might tend to focus on the past and try to justify it, especially if they share the common fear that revealing a mistake will make them (look) bad. One of the great benefits of conflict management work is that it is forward looking. If you can refocus the conversation on how to make changes that will lessen the problem and help the company in the future, you are more likely to enlist them as allies.

In the many workplaces with dysfunctional people or systems, there are no guarantees that the outcomes will be what you want, but these tips certainly improve your odds of a positive conversation and positive change.


Meredith Richardson

Meredith Richardson, Esq., CPC, helps people and organizations to successfully navigate conflict through mediation, conflict coaching, and training.  Though she was trained and worked as an attorney in ME, NH, and MA, she no longer self-identifies as a lawyer.  She helps people to have difficult conversations successfully. Meredith is well-respected… MORE >

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