Working Habits: Avoiding a conversation at work? Don’t worry, you’re not alone

Are you having those difficult conversations, or are you avoiding them?

It had been a long week at work for Caitlin, and the weekend was almost there. Caitlin co-owns a medium-sized communication business in the nonprofit sector. She was getting ready to have a difficult conversation about performance with one of her leadership team members. But with the way the week had already transpired, she didn’t know if she had the energy to do it. So, she put it off. Over the next week, Caitlin couldn’t stop thinking about the conversation she needed to have—the words she would use, and the tone of voice she would need to maintain. Another week came and went and, still, no performance conversation. She told herself that work had become too busy, but she still couldn’t shake her worries about that conversation. It consumed her mental space over the whole week and into the weekend, again.

Has something like this ever happened to you? Have you put off a conversation because you’re too tired, it’s too difficult, it makes you feel uncomfortable or you have some little bit of hope that everything will eventually get better on its own?

Don’t worry, you’re not alone.

Difficult conversations are difficult for a reason, but some types hit harder than others. For some, a performance conversation may feel like a breeze, but a discussion around a death in an employee’s family and the time they need to take off to grieve might be challenging. Whatever emotions and worries come up for you when a difficult conversation is on your horizon, you can break it down so that it isn’t looming over you when you try to sleep at night. To that end, here is a four-step guide to help you with your next difficult conversation.

1. Name your emotion—then get comfortable with the uncomfortable. When you know how you feel around the conversation you are about to have, you gain perspective on why that conversation is difficult. Keep in mind that just because you feel a certain way, it doesn’t mean the other person feels that way as well. Acknowledge what your emotion is, then get ready for the uncomfortableness that you will feel. Ask yourself: if you don’t have this conversation, what might happen? If you will still be living through discomfort because the other person is not learning the necessary behaviours or skills, then you will not gain anything by not having the conversation. Embrace the emotion and choose your difficulty.

2. Set a timeline on how long the conversation should go. Then add 10 minutes. It’s human nature to want to move through something really fast because it’s uncomfortable. But moving too fast could mean you will not get the results you are looking for. So, give it the time it needs. If you foresee a 15-minute conversation, allow yourself an additional 10 minutes to make sure there is enough room for dialogue and to prevent you from rushing through it. And if you do finish early, great! You just got 10 minutes back.

3. Set a deadline. When we feel uncomfortable, we can often procrastinate or avoid the situation altogether. This is natural, and similar to the classic “flight or fight” response. In the end, however, delaying can cost you even more energy because of how often you continue to think about the conversation. In fact, research has shown that when you have big emotions or experience fear toward a perceived threat (in this case, the discomfort of a difficult conversation), dwelling on that future situation uses more energy than actually being in the situation itself.

4. Get rid of the compliment sandwich. This classic method for delivering criticism actually tastes horrible and no one likes it. Instead, recognize the conversation for what it is. You can even share with the person that this is a difficult conversation and that it’s important that you both move through it. Acknowledge that it isn’t going to be all warm and fuzzy, but assure them that you’ll figure out what needs to be done and that you will find results. And if no results are possible? Then it’s time to set a new appointment to reconvene and discuss the issue further. Sometimes, people need space to think. Allow it to happen.

Remember what I said at the start: difficult conversations are supposed to be difficult. And when you do hold these conversations, sometimes you will walk away with the sense of a weight being lifted from your shoulders, and sometimes it will feel like you accomplished nothing. Either way, you have started a conversation that is bringing people together and allowing them to communicate. At the very least, you have gathered more information that will help you make the next best decisions for you, your team, your culture and the work.

Dr. Jessica Metcalfe is a Victoria-based award-winning speaker and the author of Speak Kindly, You’re Listening.