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Whether we’re writing emails, sitting in a management meeting, or catching up with colleagues over a coffee, communication is a vital component of everyday work life. 

Business leaders agree–93% surveyed in a recent poll acknowledge that effective communication is the backbone of their business. And although miscommunication comes at a huge price–the same survey estimates an annual $1.2 trillion loss among U.S. businesses due to poor communication–it’s a common problem. 

In fact, nearly three in four leaders (72%) say their team struggled with communicating effectively over the last year. In addition, they estimate teams lose the equivalent of nearly an entire workday each week (7.47 hours) due to poor communication issues–that’s up to a fifth of employees’ time that could be better spent elsewhere.

It's quite clearly then a case of leaders and their teams literally “talking the talk,” but not necessarily “walking the walk.” And that’s because effective communication is tough, especially when it comes to handling the difficult conversations with employees or co-workers. 

Poor communication isn’t just about understanding verbal clues: when you’re having it out with an employee who isn’t pulling their weight, observing body language, recognizing their signs of discomfort, and seeing resistance from them is key to understanding how your message is being received. 

And communicating productively during difficult conversations involves so much more, such as putting yourself in their shoes, being able to anticipate problems before it’s too late, and fostering a culture of transparency and trust in the workplace.


Be Empathetic and Understanding of Others

Tough conversations with employees or co-workers need to be handled with care to prevent lasting damage to relationships and team dynamics. Before jumping headfirst into a challenging discussion, take a step back and try to understand the other person’s perspective, situation, and needs. A few simple questions can help colleagues resolve the issue at hand as well as strengthen the bonds between them:


  • What is the topic of the difficult conversation?

We all have preferred conversation topics, so some things are just easier to talk about than others. What might be comfortable for one person, though, isn’t necessarily the same for someone else. One employee might be motivated to do better when confronted with negative feedback about performance issues, while another might try their hardest to avoid a sesitive topic altogether. Keep this mind and be empathetic to the unique feelings and preferences of your people.


  • Is this the right time?

Cornering direct reports or co-workers when they’re busy or catching them when they’re off guard at the water cooler isn’t going to help your cause. More than likely, they’ll feel ambushed and shut down–the exact opposite employee reaction you want. Instead find common ground and lay the groundwork for a more constructive conversation by asking them for a time to talk that suits them and aligning your calendars accordingly. 


  • Does the other person need time to prepare?

Just because you’re prepared for the conversation ahead doesn’t mean your colleague is–in fact, it might come as a massive surprise to them. Give them a heads up and some time to mentally prepare, so that they’re just as ready as you are when the time comes. 


  • Have you challenged your own assumptions?

Just as there are two sides to every story, there are usually multiple perspectives to a workplace problem. Be respectful and open-minded, and ready to genuinely listen to and consider your colleague’s point of view–you might be surprised at what you learn!


  • Have you adopted the right approach?

Because we’re all different, we respond in different ways–especially in times of stress. Some co-workers might prefer you to “say it like it is” for example, while others might require a more diplomatic approach. If you don’t know what style your co-worker prefers, ask. By adopting the right tactic for the employee you’re communicating with, you’ll both get the most out of the conversation and minimize any potential harm going forward.


  • Do you understand their needs?

Needs are an important part of relationships, and work relationships are no different. So, when navigating a tough conversation with a co-worker, it’s critical to base your conversation on their needs. Are they motivated by facts, or should your messaging be more personalized? Can you be blunt in your approach or is some sensitivity required in order to optimize conversation outcomes? Some colleagues might be easier to figure out than others, so if you don’t know, ask. This is the best way to convey your message as constructively and productively as possible.


Anticipate and Address Problems and Concerns 

Once you understand your colleagues better and know where they’re coming from, it’s easier to anticipate and sort out potential problems before they become too serious. Essentially, it’s the road map you need to navigate any bumps in the way ahead–smoothly and successfully.

Always remember that having a tough conversation should never be a one-way thing. While you may be initiating the discussion, your receiver plays an integral role in its ultimate success or failure. 

As a leader, it’s your job to establish an environment of psychological safety–a safe space to speak up and be heard. This will help your employees open up about any problems or issues they may have. In addition, always approach any difficult workplace conversation with a willingness to address your own personal communication shortcomings, too. Nobody is perfect and we all have our own quirks and blind spots to overcome. When used together, this approach will result in a positive, two-way interaction that moves you both forward. 

The Tools for Better Communication and Improvement

Embark on a journey of self-discovery by taking an introspective look at your own communication style. Analyze where you can do better by approaching a potentially tricky conversation with the attitude that any communication issues could be stemming from your side, rather than the person you’re engaging with. This way, you’ll be more patient and willing to listen and consider your co-workers point of view, with an emphasis on keeping mutual respect. There’s no doubt your emotions may make remaining open-minded a challenge, but the payoff of ultimately improving your communication competence is well worth the effort.

At Birkman, we understand the importance of arming yourself with the knowledge you need to understand communication differences. The Birkman Method is your toolkit to achieve this–

providing valuable insights into personal behaviors, preferred communication styles, and how best to bridge the gaps, so that you and your team can stay aligned and on track.

If you’re feeling hesitant about tackling the tough discussions, we’ll equip you to navigate those challenging conversations confidently and avoid the roadblocks caused by miscommunication. Find out more in our webinar.

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