Don’t Avoid Difficult Work Conversations

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Anxious about a conversation you need to have with someone at work?

Don’t let anxiety keep you from forging ahead. Conversation can help clear the air, create better work relationships, or at the very least, end the stress that builds as you internalize your emotions and do nothing to resolve things. Don’t bottle up your frustration or anger until you reach the boiling point and explode one day at an inopportune moment.

Maybe you’re steamed about a recent “unfair” review or promotion you didn’t get. Maybe a team member is taking credit for group work or not pulling his or her weight. Maybe your new boss is micromanaging your every move even though you’ve been with the company for a few years.

Difficult conversation with a boss


If the conversation you’re avoiding will be with a boss, send a quick email requesting a few minutes. Don’t include too much information about what you need … just a general topic and time needed, e.g., “Could we meet for 5 or 10 minutes sometime this week to talk about the Williams Project?”

Start the conversation with a brief, positive explanation of the problem, rather than a list of grievances. Keep in mind that your boss may have a different perspective and also that you may have some responsibility for what’s happening. Your goal is to open the door without causing anyone to get defensive. “I’m really excited to be working on this project and am proud to be part of the team. I’d like to try a bit more soloing if you’re comfortable with that,” might be a good start for the micromanaging boss. Then you could continue on by describing your plan on how to keep your boss in the loop with weekly updates.

If the conversation is about an unfair review or a missed promotion, again start with an open mind and an email request for some follow-up time. Bring examples of your work that demonstrate what you’re saying. Ask for steps that will help make you a candidate for the next promotion.

Difficult conversation with a colleague


A difficult conversation with a coworker is more casual, and probably you don’t need to schedule a meeting (although you should take time to consider the conversation and to calm down if you’re upset). It’s important to remember that in addition to clearing the air, your goal is to make what could well be a long working relationship better.  

First, don’t jump to conclusions and don’t be petty. The infraction may have been an oversight. Is it possible the credit-hoarding coworker didn’t mention you because he or she was nervous? Also give some thought to how much it matters — will it negatively impact your career? And is it a pattern, i.e., has he or she taken credit for your work before? Find the middle ground between petty and a pushover.

Begin by saying something like this: “Tim, I think we’ve all been working pretty well together on this project. I noticed in the meeting when you discussed our work, you said I rather than we when you talked about our latest accomplishments.  Did you intend to do it that way?” This gives your colleague an opportunity to explain or apologize. It also lets him or her know that you noticed the oversight and didn’t like it.

Finally, discuss a remedy for the situation. Suggest he email the group thanking you for your contributions, or you can both go talk to your manager to set the record straight, suggests Amy Gallo for Harvard Business Review.

Avoiding a difficult work conversation because it makes you uncomfortable? Consider the discomfort you’re experiencing by continuing to say nothing. Practice handling these situations with finesse and grace. Get to the bottom of what might be a simple misunderstanding. Don’t assume things will fix themselves.

Agree? Disagree? Add your insightful comments here.