Solid Strategies for Difficult Conversations at Work

January 29, 2018
Hands clasped together

Difficult conversations at work are sometimes inevitable—but there are ways to infuse them with compassion and care.

For nurses, teachers, social workers, and many other professionals whose roles include a duty of care, having difficult conversations is an unavoidable and challenging part of the job. Delivering bad news, mediating conflict, and verbal de-escalation are all tasks that tend to trigger very natural feelings of anxiety and aversion. Knowing that these conversations are inevitable within one’s duty of care, the challenge becomes communicating with confidence and compassion.
Nonviolent Crisis Intervention® training provides the principles to thoughtfully facilitate difficult conversations in a constructive way. These evidence-based strategies can work across any industry, and even in our personal lives, because they’re rooted in the values of Care, Welfare, Safety, and Security—values that support the wellbeing of all people, and that each of us deserves to experience in personal and professional life.
Before tackling a difficult conversation at work, take the time to prepare and understand exactly what you need to say. Then, devote the same thoughtfulness to the person you’ll be talking with:

  • Are there Precipitating Factors that may influence how your message is received? Recently my aunt was given some difficult medical news while in the hospital—but she was told within minutes of taking a medication that made her incredibly confused and agitated, so she took the news much harder than she would have if the message had been better timed.
  • Have you rationally detached from the emotional intensity of the subject at hand? Teachers often face very fraught conversations— from personal hygiene in the classroom, to failing grades, to issues at home—and it’s natural for them to care deeply about the students being affected. But Rational Detachment helps teachers communicate professionally, empowering them to stay focused on the topic at hand.
  • Does your body language align with your message? Humans are deeply sensitive to nonverbal and paraverbal behaviors. Approaching a difficult conversation with furrowed brows, crossed arms, eyes focused downward or elsewhere—these gestures will inadvertently amplify anxious and defensive feelings in the person you’re speaking with. Always position yourself with respect to the other person’s physical space, and be mindful of your facial expression and tone throughout a difficult conversation.

Implementing these strategies is a form of person-centered care, which gives individuals meaningful support in times of conflict or crisis. The more time you take to get to know the people in your care, the better you can understand their choices and behaviors, which helps you to support them better through moments of conflict or crisis.

When facilitating a difficult conversation at work, structure your message to be as supportive as possible.

Whether I’m talking to a coworker, my supervisor, or individuals in my care, I’ve found the best way to share a difficult message is to “sandwich” it with positivity. It’s an approach that you can easily customize based on the situation, but in general, it works this way:

  • Open your conversation with a positive message that acknowledges your care for the other person, such as a personal compliment or a recognition of their recent efforts.
  • Deliver the difficult message as compassionately and clearly as possible. Remain mindful of the person you’re speaking to—and how they might react to this message—and be as supportive as you can.
  • Follow the message with a positive option that’s within your realm to offer—such as a possible solution or feasible alternative. Not every piece of bad news has a direct solution that you’ll be able to facilitate, but at the very least, you can always remind that person that you care.

Senior Level CPI Certified Instructor T.D. Loftus has written about the vital opportunity that professionals have when they facilitate difficult conversations at work: “By taking a mindful, person-centered approach, you first help a client re-pave the paths trauma laid in their mind, and secondly, you empower them to consciously engage in recovery.”
While the immediate tension and anxiety of a difficult conversation can make it feel especially daunting, try to take the long view. It’s about more than what’s happening in the moment. It’s a chance to facilitate therapeutic rapport and model skills of self-regulation. The experience of receiving difficult news can potentially be as upsetting as the news itself—most people can remember what they were doing or where they were at such moments—so it’s important to bear in mind the lasting impact of the conversations you facilitate.
Bad news, conflict, and crisis aren’t always avoidable in our professional and personal lives, but with training and perspective, we can make these experiences constructive. Check out these additional resources to infuse your communication skills with person-centered clarity:

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