Diffusing Difficult Conversations at Work

Wednesday, May 08, 2013

Fighting is okay in a select few work environments. 
During a recent team-building event at Champions, our facilitator - Herky Cutler - made an interesting point about how to diffuse or push through roadblocks in tough conversations. We were discussing how when dealing with each other in the office, or with clients, we can often run into walls when people have a difference of opinion on what to do in a given situation. For example, perhaps a co-worker wants to challenge the status quo on how we provide a certain service, or maybe a client wants to stick with their current resume rather than making the changes one of our Case Managers recommends.

Herky's suggestion to dealing with these delicate situations was both simple and elegant. Rather than butting heads, or agreeing to disagree and having tension build up, he suggested diffusing the conversation with a quick question:

"How is that working out for you?"

It's an easy question to ask, solicits the other person's opinion and opens the door for further evaluation of the topic being discussed. Brilliant.

This got me thinking, what are some other quick lines that can help release tension and build discussion in the workplace.

I have a tendency to be fairly obstinate when dealing with differences of opinion at work or in my personal life. I think I am being "matter of fact" or "rational", but others have told me many times that it comes off as being slightly condescending. I am always amazed at people who can navigate through difficult conversations, arguments and debates by posing the right questions at the right time. Similar to Herky's suggestion, these questions lead to constructive dialog and build positive relationships.

So I thought I might do some quick research and try to find other quick and easy ways to turn difficult conversations into meaningful encounters. Here is what I found:

Ask questions! It is the best way to understand where the other person is coming from.  Some ideas:

  • Can you tell in more detail why this is important to you?
  • What caused you to see this as a problem?
  • Is there something I can do to help you with this then?
  • Is the best you can do? (A Steve Jobs favourite)
  • What do you suggest to stop this from happening again?
  • What do you think?
  • Why do you think this is a good idea?
  • What do you need from me? 
  • What do you want to happen? What do you need to make it happen?
  • What else? Do you have any more thoughts on this? Can you think of anything else?
  • What would you say if...?

Obviously, sincerity is key to any meaningful conversation. Asking a question in a degrading way, like is that the BEST that YOU can do, can have a totally different impact than asking in a way that encourages honest feedback.

Do you have any suggestions for quick questions or statements to navigate tough conversations? Let us know in the comments!

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