Difficult Conversations in the Workplace

Thumbs down, Public Domain

While some of us might ask why difficult conversations need to happen at all, deep down we all know there really is no choice in the matter. As long as two or more people share the same space and are required to interact, eventually a difficult conversation or two will surface. Whether it’s about leftovers in the refrigerator or inappropriate attention, people will come into varying degrees of conflict that require careful navigation to resolve. Avoiding these conversations doesn’t solve anything, while learning how to manage challenging interactions gives you the power to improve your work environment and change relationships.

The Importance of Setting and Honoring Boundaries

Boundaries are our personal “property lines.” They help define who we are in relationships and how we relate to the world around us. In a very real sense boundaries define where we end and others begin. Personal boundaries can also protect us from harm and injury and typically reflect:

  • what we want and what we don’t want
  • what we believe about ourselves and others
  • what we consider acceptable or unacceptable behavior in ourselves and others
  • who we are and who we are not.

In the workplace, setting healthy boundaries is important because they define your personal limits and responsibilities as well as those of the people you interact with professionally.

When you confront someone about a problem or something that you feel needs to change, you are establishing a boundary. You may hesitate to do this because you prefer to avoid conflict, but not having clear boundaries means you’re not sure about your opinions, feelings and beliefs. Alternatively, if you have clear boundaries but avoid expressing them, you are being unfair, both to yourself as you continue to feel violated, and to the person who is (maybe unintentionally) crossing your unexpressed boundaries.

There are a lot of reasons why we might avoid having “the talk,” including:

  • Fear of altering/losing the relationship
  • Fear of becoming the object of the other person’s anger.
  • Fear of being hurt and of hurting the other person’s feelings.
  • Fear of being seen in a negative light

Reasons for Speaking Up

What we seldom seem to think about are the many excellent reasons for jumping right in. One good, difficult conversation can do a number of amazing things for both parties. In addition to avoiding and resolving alienation, an “all cards on the table” dialogue

  • is empowering,
  • solves problems,
  • builds growth,
  • clarifies reality,
  • makes you part of the solution, not part of the problem, and
  • preserves mutual respect and consideration.

Probably the most important benefit of all is that healthy confrontations help bring disconnected people together. When an unspoken conflict or issue festers below the surface, relationships are often damaged beyond repair. The extent to which two people can surface and resolve issues is a direct indicator of the soundness of their relationship, whether professional or personal. Even when the first attempt at broaching an issue is awkward and less than successful, most people still feel much better for having had a real conversation about it.

Ultimately, when people succeed in resolving a problem through healthy confrontation, they build trust and strengthen their existing connection. Bringing problems to light and addressing them, rather than ignoring or denying them, improves interactions over the long run and reduces the likelihood of both burnout and blow-out.

What’s in it for You?

There are personal benefits to be gained from tackling difficult conversations. Healthy confrontation helps us grow emotionally, relationally and professionally because it makes us more aware of our own behavior and how we impact those around us. We may start a conversation intending to address our own concerns about the behavior of another and learn more about ourselves in the process. In some cases, challenging conversations are truly illuminating and can bring about significant, positive change to both parties.

By confronting a problem, you will likely learn more about the other person along the way. Perhaps you’ll discover that you’ve unintentionally drawn a distorted picture of this person in your own mind by focusing on the negative impact of the issue in question. Clearing the air and making a real connection can help reset your perceptions, bringing them closer to reality. If confrontation does not lead to a mutually agreeable solution, then at least you will know you didn’t simply hide, adding to the problem by enabling the situation to continue.

Watch for the second part of this post, Addressing Conflict in the Workplace, in which we review the essentials of good conversation and review one approach for tackling difficult conversations in a non-reactionary way.

 

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