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How to Have a Difficult Conversation with a Co-Worker

Remarkable things happen when teams come together to work toward a common purpose.

The American industrialist Andrew Carnegie said of teamwork, “It is the fuel that allows common people to attain uncommon results.”

But even in the most harmonious workplaces, there’s a potential for conflict.

Personalities clash, competitiveness creeps in, and tempers flare. Remote working arrangements present new complexities as frequent and organic interactions have been replaced with prescheduled conversations and stilted team collaborations.

When frustrations arise, it is important to address them rather than let them fester. But confronting conflict is never easy.

Tough conversations with co-workers need to be handled with care to prevent lasting damage to relationships and team dynamics. A thoughtful approach can help workers not only resolve the issue at hand but also strengthen the bonds between team members.

Before initiating a delicate discussion, however, workers should consider several questions to help set the tone for the most constructive conversation on potentially sensitive topics.

Is the timing right?

Some of us would prefer to put off a difficult conversation or avoid it all together. Others are entirely comfortable tackling issues head on, and when they decide that conversations with coworkers are warranted, they don’t mind upending their schedule to have it..

But cornering co-workers in the break room or catching them off guard in their offices isn’t appropriate. Interrupting colleagues while they are working can be stressful, particularly for those who prefer a predictable, scheduled day.

They may feel ambushed and possibly shut down, making the situation worse. Instead of blindsiding someone, lay the groundwork for the uncomfortable conversation and ask for a time to talk.

What is the optimal outcome and can I establish some common ground?

Before approaching a co-worker with a problem, or negative feedback, it’s important to determine an optimal outcome. You may want to feel heard by your co-worker, but the purpose of the challenging conversation shouldn’t simply be to vent your frustrations. Nor should you initiate a debate with the intent of scoring points — this isn’t a sparring match and no winner will be declared.

Remembering that you are on the same team, a more positive outcome might involve establishing common ground around the team’s purpose. Your team exists for a reason, and if the conflict with your co-worker interferes with your ability to fulfill that purpose, this will cause suffering for all team members.

Putting this stake in the ground can set the tone for a successful conversation and keep the common good rather than individual frustrations at the forefront.

Can you identify constructive changes to prevent the problem from recurring and resolve the issue in a manner that can help the team meet its goals?

What are the right words to use?

Words matter, and word choice can make or break a difficult conversation. Leaving your filter at home and delivering your thoughts in a very frank or blunt way with strong emotions will be an obstacle to healthy discussion for many of your co-workers. The approach of “telling it like it is” runs the risk of others feeling defensive, or worse, tuning you out entirely.

Most of us prefer sensitivity when being spoken to, even if we’re direct when we communicate with others. This is especially true when the topic of discussion is around personal issues. Being mindful of your words and tone sets the stage for a productive exchange.

By the same token, avoid being overly vague or dancing around the issue.

Being clear and considerate will help ensure your message is both understood and fairly received.

Am I ready to hear their perspective?

Just as there are two sides to every story, there are usually multiple perspectives to a workplace problem. And since our unique personalities shape our realities, it’s very likely your colleague will have a different perception than yours of what led up to the conflict and how to resolve it. When you enter into a difficult conversation, you need to be ready to genuinely listen and consider your co-worker’s point of view with an emphasis on keeping mutual respect. Be patient and leave room for your teammate to share their view of the facts as well as their feelings.

Your own emotions may make remaining open-minded more challenging. Anger or frustration can lead your words and tone to seem more aggressive, even if that is not your intent. Give yourself time to reach a sense of calm so you can share your own perspective logically without challenging their sense of psychological safety.

Few people relish difficult discussions, but staying stuck in a place of bitterness or awkwardness is hardly a solution. Addressing a workplace problem is courageous, and when handled with consideration and care, doing so can lead to a positive resolution that moves the team forward. To ensure a constructive conversation, take time to ask yourself the questions above and sincerely consider the answers.

Birkman Signature provides valuable insights into personal behaviors as well as individual needs to help teams recognize how each member contributes to the overall team dynamic. Learn more here

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