Having a difficult conversation at work

A crucial conversation happens in a situation when emotions are high, stakes are high, and there are opposing opinions involved. The most common and feared crucial conversations at work involve asking for a raise, confronting a boss or coworker, or giving feedback to a peer at work. It’s safe to say that most employees have experienced at least one of these situations, if not all of them. Before I read the book Crucial Conversations by Kerry Patterson, I would typically fall to silence in the work place when presented with one of the opportunities above. In an effort to maintain a professional brand or even avoid confrontation with a senior colleague, I would not say a word and leave the office fuming, only to complain to everyone other than the one person I should be talking to.


There are two main assumptions many of us believe which prevent us from having important conversations with our direct reports, coworkers, or superiors.


1. The first assumption is having a difficult conversation at work runs the risk of damaging the relationship. Many people avoid confrontations with their boss because they don’t want to risk damaging such an important relationship. Even worse, we avoid telling our peers what we really think because we believe we could hurt their feelings. Instead, we hold it all in and our true feelings slip out in the form of passive agressive emails or text messages. We become resentful of the person for their decisions and they have no idea how we feel


2. The second thing we do is we rationalize the other person’s intent and we assume they will never be reasonable enough to see our perspective. However, the main problem with this assumption is we are operating based on a story we have created ourselves. When emotions and stakes are high, we tend to fill in the blanks with a story of our own and we assume the worst of others.


Overall, I found the book Crucial Conversations to be extremely helpful at managing difficult conversations and I am confident that my relationships, work life, and family life will be improved as a result. Most recently, I had a difficult conversation with a coworker I had worked with for weeks on a high profile project. When it came time for the President of the company to present the results, who did he give all the credit to? Her, of course. I sat in the conference room in complete disbelief as she simply replied: “Thank you.” My blood was boiling! This was a perfect opportunity for her to tell everyone in the room how she could not have completed this in-depth analysis without my expertise, but she didn’t. I could not believe she sat calmly without even looking at me or realizing what she had just done. As the meeting dragged on, I anxiously watched the clock and bolted out of the conference room the moment the meeting ended.


As expected she came to my desk shortly after and asked “How did you think that went?” Cowardly, I replied “it went fine” and at that moment I knew I had avoided a key opportunity to have a crucial conversation. After a week had passed, I was still thinking about the meeting and got angrier each time the memory came up in my mind. This was a good sign that I needed to step up and have the conversation. Ideally, I would have said something a week earlier in the heat of the moment, but I am still learning to manage my emotions and seize the moment with a calm and clear head.


I scheduled a meeting with my co-worker and let her know I wanted to share some thoughts about how we could collaborate better together. This is where I got to apply my learned skills of how to effectively confront someone in a way that does not damage your relationship, but brings you closer together through open and genuine communication.


In this situation I was lucky because in our meeting she brought up the project by saying how great it was to work together and make a huge impact on the company. She seemed genuinely happy and proud of our work and wanted to continue our collaboration. This was my prime opportunity. I replied, “Yeah, I really enjoyed working with you on that, but I wanted to talk about the meeting last week.” She then perked up and listened attentively noticing that these words were not coming as freely for me. I continued speaking tentatively and said, “I noticed that you were recognized for the project in the meeting as you should have been, but I felt like I did not get acknowledged for my contributions to this project and that was really demotivating for me.” I then asked for her follow up: “Is that the way you saw it, what was your perspective in that meeting?”

This was an example of using the above acronym to approach your difficult conversations: S.T.A.T.E.

Start with the facts.

By starting with the facts, you are leaving nothing up to interpretations. I explained how I saw that only she was praised in the meeting for the results of our project that we worked on together. Starting with the facts allows you to continue explaining your perceptions without getting interrupted. When you start your conversation with your emotional story such as,  ”I feel like you took all the credit for the project”, then that sets yourself up for the person to immediately interrupt you and go into defense mode. By starting with the facts you are presenting evidence to move on to the next step where you can describe your story.

Tell your story.

I told my story how I was demotivated and made to feel like my contributions were not acknowledged. Remember, a lot of times we tell a story to ourselves based on the facts that we observed. I could not 100% confirm that no one had acknowledged my contributions, but since I did not hear anyone acknowledge them it was the assumption that I made.

Ask for confirmation.

The next step is critical because this is where your crucial conversation can all go wrong. If you go into this conversation assuming that your “story” is the only story that is accurate it really sets a negative tone. By asking for their perspective you are really showing a mutual respect for each others’ opinion.

Talk tentatively.

From here forward be sure to speak tentatively and do not speak as though your perception is the definitive truth. We all know that tone of voice is a huge contributor to communication and even if you are saying all the right things, your tone can really change the path of the outcome.

Encourage testing.

Lastly, offer the opportunity to test things out. In this example, I didn’t need to take things that far, but one way to test our assumptions would be for her to e-mail the President of the company to see if he knew the work I had contributed. There are usually a number of ways you can offer suggestions to test out situations or solutions. This is a great way to leave the conversation open for ongoing discussion

This conversation was not easy, especially since I was only on my 3rd month at this company and was reticent to have an uncomfortable situation. However, I was able to not only get empathy and understanding from my coworker, but also respect. If you don’t let people know that something upsets you then they will continue to do it. My coworker was oblivious that I felt this way and in the next project meeting with the department she made it a point to recognize me and let everyone know that I was instrumental to the outcome of that project. I didn’t expect her to take it that far, but now that she knows how important recognition is to me she has gone above and beyond to give me credit when appropriate.

The mistake that most people make is that they believe by avoiding the problem they are doing everyone a favor. In fact, I can tell you that you’re not and the longer you avoid having a difficult conversation at work, the more likely you are to let this problem explode or come out in passive-aggressive or immature ways. I was only able to dip into a fragment of what I learned from reading Crucial Conversations, but I hope that it was helpful.

Do any of you have any stories of a crucial conversation gone bad? Even better, if you have fearlessly stepped into a difficult conversation that ended successfully, I’d LOVE to hear about it. Please share your stories in the comments below!

Leave a Comment

Next post: