10 Tips to Navigating Difficult Conversations at Work

Office politics. Difficult managers. Catty colleagues. Whether it’s miscommunication, competing agendas, or a mismatch of personalities, sometimes there’s no amount of goodwill and collaboration that can help prevent it. (And sometimes there are company cultures that encourage it.) Unless you’re in an unsafe or toxic environment where you need to look for another job ASAP, here are ten steps to navigate difficult conversations:

    1. Don’t avoid it. Letting things fester will inevitably lead to resentment, making it harder for you to do your best work, not to mention stay sane. 
    2. Feel your feelings. Give yourself space to let it out – cry, yell, whatever – and then gather yourself together, take a deep breath, and compartmentalize. As personal as this may feel, it’s business. 
    3. Seek guidance. If there’s someone who has worked with this person before, try to get insight from them on how to best approach the situation. Obviously don’t gossip, but having an ally and advocate will help give you the information and support you need to handle the situation.
    4. Don’t make assumptions. As hard as this may be, try to come into the conversation with a clear head and an open mind. Giving them the benefit of the doubt will help prevent them from getting defensive, which will make the conversation even more difficult. 
    5. Focus on the impact. To prevent them from getting defensive, Rebecca Weaver, 20-year HR veteran and founder of HRuprise, an organization that provides HR coaching directly to employees, suggests using the framework of “Situation, behavior, impact.” For example, you were in a meeting (the situation), your manager yelled at you and pounded their fist on the table (behavior), and it made you question your ability to do your job (the impact.) When you talk to them, put it in the construct of “when you do this, this is how it affects me.” Some of the impacts can be “I didn’t understand where you were coming from,” or “I didn’t fully understand the point you were trying to drive home.” It doesn’t necessarily have to be how it made you feel since that can put you in an even more vulnerable position that a lot of people are willing to go, especially in a situation like this.
    6. Bring solutions. Move the conversation in a positive direction by bringing suggestions of how to remedy the situation. By doing that, you won’t be looked at as complaining but rather, problem-solving. It also demonstrates that you respect their time since they probably have limited bandwidth to address this. Plus, it improves the chances that you get what you want!
    7. Confirm. A way to wrap up the conversation is to repeat the main points and confirm that you’ve correctly understood them. This will help determine any next steps and prevent miscommunication moving forward. 
    8. Send a recap. Immediately follow up with an email, recapping the conversation and thanking them for taking the time to connect. It’s important to put this in writing so you have a paper trail in case you need to refer back to it (or get HR to step in.)
    9. Document everything. Whatever the situation is (a difficult manager or a catty colleague), you should be documenting it. Things such as “this was the date it happened, here’s what was said, here’s how I responded”, will be helpful for HR to review if you need them to get involved. If possible, include copies of any relevant communications between you as well as testimonials from colleagues who may have witnessed the behavior. Rebecca Weaver, of HRuprise, suggests doing this on a personal computer or phone, rather than on your company computer. 
    10. Build your network. The best way to navigate office politics is to get to know your colleagues, building your internal network as best you can. Understanding who you work with, their goals, and styles of communication, will help you be proactive in avoiding miscommunication though if and when it happens, you’ll have a better sense of how to navigate and resolve it.

Whatever happens, be proud of yourself for addressing the situation with grace. You got this!


For more tips on how to own your worth and take command of your career, check out the Ladies Get Paid book.