Your 5-Step Formula to Having a Difficult Conversation at Work—and Coming Out Ahead
Even when you have great co-workers and an agreeable boss, at some point, it will be necessary to have a difficult conversation with someone in your office. You may find yourself preparing for a confrontation for a number of different reasons—from following up about a comment that rubbed you the wrong way to asking for a raise because of all the extra responsibility you’ve recently taken on.
Unfortunately, tricky conversations are just that: tricky. To make sure you come away from the discussion with the results you want, I’ve found that it’s best to spend some focused time preparing. This helps me think through different scenarios and get clear about exactly what I want to say, no matter how the situation progresses—especially when I think the conversation could get emotional, like when I have to give a performance review or when I want to discuss something that upset me with my manager.
Here’s the foolproof, five-step process I use to prepare:
Step 1: Clarify What You Want to Get Out of the Conversation
The most important thing to do when preparing for a difficult conversation is to make sure you can articulate your desired outcome. If you aren’t clear on that, it’ll be much easier for the conversation to go off the rails.
Your ideal outcome should be fairly specific and include an actionable result. For example, if someone made a comment that offended you, your ideal outcome may be to have him or her agree to stop using that type of language.
Step 2: Plan it Out
Once you know where you want your conversation to end up, take some time to plan out how you’re going to get there. All of the things you’ve learned about sharing feelings ring true here: Use “I” statements (“I feel frustrated when I’m left out of project meetings”), include specific examples to highlight the issue, and clearly differentiate between opinions and facts (“This process seems inefficient” vs. “This process is inefficient”).
You can use bullets or jot down a few notes—whatever works best for you. I often script it out, because I like to know exactly how I’m going to frame the conversation.
Step 3: Anticipate the Response
Next, spend a couple of minutes thinking through how you think the person might respond, so you can frame your own reaction.
For example, perhaps you feel like you’re getting left out of important decisions about one of your projects, and you want to ask your boss to include you. In response, your manager may ask, “How much capacity do you have to attend additional meetings?” “What perspective will you bring to the decision-making process?” or “Why do you want to be looped in?”
Anticipating those questions can help you formulate articulate, sensible replies.
Step 4: Practice
Similar to practicing responses for interview questions, you should practice saying your part of the conversation out loud at least once before you head into the discussion. This will help you iron out any kinks and make last-minute tweaks—anything from changing the way you want to frame the conversation to ridding your speech pattern of unwanted “ums.”
Step 5: Go for It
Now that you’ve prepared, it’s time to talk. I recommend setting up a meeting in a private place—like a conference room or office—so that neither of you feel rushed or self-conscious airing your feelings. And if you’re nervous at the beginning of the conversation, just say so! Your honesty will ease any tension that might be in the room and help get things started.
Stick to this preparation plan, and the next time you discuss a sticky situation with a co-worker or manager, you’ll be sure to come out on top.
Photo of conversation courtesy of Shutterstock.
Leslie Moser attends Harvard Business School where she is pursuing her MBA. Before going back to school she worked at Teach For America where she tried to tackle educational inequity one email at a time. Leslie loves to travel, eat Thai food, and watch reruns of The West Wing.More from this Author