Difficult conversations at work — why do we dread them so much? Maybe because there’s often more going on beneath the surface than the issue at hand.
Poor performance reviews. Redundancy. Bullying. The workplace is full of thorny topics that are often only resolved after a difficult conversation with management or HR. The problem is that few people want to have those conversations in the first place — not managers and certainly not employees. In fact, most of us outright dread them.
That is because difficult conversations can lead to strong emotional reactions and, if not handled well, simmering resentment. But this still doesn’t mean that they should be avoided. Putting off a tricky interaction is rarely a good idea, as issues that are left alone rarely resolve themselves and instead tend to fester.
So how can you make difficult workplace conversations a little less difficult? We’re going to explore some tips for this but first, let’s look at how people feel about these kinds of interactions — and why they can be so challenging.
Do you dread and avoid having awkward conversations at work? You’re far from the only one.
In fact, a 2015 survey of 2000 British people by the Chartered Management Institute found that difficult workplace conversations were taking a heavy emotional toll on workers.
Many people stated that they actually found it harder to ask their boss for a pay rise than break up with a partner. 11% reported that they found it hard to sleep or had nightmares before a difficult workplace conversation. Added to this, 80% of people had never had training in dealing with these kinds of conversations at work. In other words, many managers have never been equipped with the tools to manage this kind of interaction.
Perhaps most shockingly, over half of all individuals surveyed also said that they would rather put up with a bad situation at work than have a conversation about it. But why should this be the case? Let’s look at some of the reasons.
This may sound like a strange question — after all, isn’t it self-explanatory? Most people don’t want to talk about poor performance or workplace conflicts. No one wants to tell someone that their lateness is disruptive or that their absenteeism is becoming a problem.
But maybe there’s more going on under the surface too — the ‘difficult beneath the difficult’? Because sometimes, it’s not just the issue at hand that makes these conversations so stressful.
In fact, the issue at hand is sometimes far from the only thing in the room. What’s also in the room is the life experiences of the people having the conversation — their background, culture, childhood, worldview, opinions and perceptions. And this can include painful memories, past traumas and mental health issues such as anxiety or depression.
In other words, everyone has their ‘stuff’ and there’s always a chance that a difficult conversation is going to bring that stuff to the surface.
For instance, if someone has issues with shame then they may react very differently to a poor performance review than something who is more emotionally resilient. Because for them, it may feel like much more than a poor performance review — it may feel like an undermining of their entire worth as a person. In other words, negative feedback could trigger spiralling feelings of self-doubt and self-hatred, causing them to appear angry, defensive or shut down.
And this can be rooted in many things, for instance, having an overly critical parent in childhood (resulting in a harsh inner critic in adulthood). Yet to the manager giving the feedback, the person might seem as if they are overreacting and can’t take criticism. This is because there is usually no way of knowing about the private inner-life of an employee — in essence, you are going into difficult conversations blind.
Likewise, if someone got a message from their parents that they always had to be the best — or were pushed into a competitive relationship with a sibling — then being passed over for promotion in favour of a colleague could be deeply triggering. Or if someone has issues with rejection or abandonment that are rooted in their younger years, then even the possibility of redundancy could be traumatic.
Also, bear in mind that as a manager you represent authority, which is an issue in and of itself. Because no matter how good a boss you are, not everyone had a positive experience with authority in childhood. For some, the power of others can seem deeply threatening, causing them to feel cornered or defensive. Yet the trouble with feeling threatened is that it can come across as hostility or aggression, even if the person is actually panicked or afraid.
It is also crucial to be aware of how surface emotions can mask deeper reactions, particularly in male employees. For instance, some people can appear angry when they are actually sad or grieving. Others can seem cold or detached when they are frightened or triggered. Still others can appear disdainful or sarcastic when they are actually deeply ashamed.
And don’t forget that many people feel the need to present their ‘game face’ during difficult workplace conversations — so even if they seem calm, they could be devastated inside. This can be especially true for people who have had prior negative experiences of disclosing distress or mental health issues in jobs.
In short, how a person acts in a challenging meeting is not always how they feel, especially in the workplace where showing your real emotions is often inadvisable. And while it’s never okay for someone to raise their voice at you, be aware that their reaction might be more about fear, grief or panic than actual anger.
Likewise, managers and HR professionals can also bring their own issues into the room, sometimes without even being aware of it. For instance, if you are easily triggered by conflict — perhaps due to your own life experiences — then you might overreact to an employee expressing a normal level of frustration. You could take it personally or view it as aggression, at which point the situation is at risk of escalating.
Because again, what’s in the room is so much more than the official topic of conversation. Entire lived experiences and unresolved personal issues can also be crowded in there with you both, whether you like it or not. That is why it is key for managers and HR professionals to be very aware of their own responses in this kind of situation, for instance, observing what kind of role you slip into during difficult conversations. This way you can become more conscious of your own reactions and steer talks in more positive directions.
For instance, do you become angry in difficult conversations? Argumentative? Fearful? A people pleaser? Do you shut down emotionally and become cold? Do you have a tendency to be passive and let the other person dominate? Or become defensive and talk over them? Or do you freeze up completely? Or have the urge to end the meeting quickly and escape?
Or maybe you become a younger, less certain version of yourself? Or feel an urge to ‘fix’ the person’s distress and rescue them? Or perhaps feelings of imposter syndrome come up, for instance, you start worrying you’re not equipped to be in your role — and that the employee can see right through you?
Again, who we become in difficult conversations can tell us a lot about ourselves (and maybe that’s one of the reasons why we dread having them). So if you struggle in this area then try to see it as an opportunity for growth, not just professionally but also personally.
For instance, it can be really useful to explore the role that the ‘four F responses’ (Fight, Flight, Freeze and Fawn) might play in your life. You might also want to identify your workplace communication style and how it might be affecting your interactions.
And if you find that difficult workplace conversations are causing you a lot of distress then you could explore this more deeply with a therapist. One option could be a focused single-session therapy appointment that could equip you with the tools for managing these situations better in the future.
Of course, there is no ‘magic pill’ for making difficult workplace conversations easy. But if we can develop better awareness of how these interactions can be triggering then we can manage them in a calmer, more compassionate way.
In part two of this post, we will be looking at smart steps and strategies for managing tricky workplace conversations.
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