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How to approach difficult conversations at workplace?

“What are my alternatives to the conversation?” What are my counterpart’s alternatives to the conversation?

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A report drawn by Hayes (2008) found that approx. 85% of US employees experience conflicts at the workplace. They spent 2.8 hours weekly figuring out ways to resolve the conflict. 25% of employees addressed conflicts through avoidance. These resulted in either personal attacks or absence from work. Based on an argument placed by Forbes, difficult conversations are served by engaging in negative emotions. Employees will use tactics such as deceit, manipulation, blame shifting, or gaslighting when they are unable to deal with the conversation.

Any conversation that is responded to with avoidance, eye-rolling, or ignorance, will often turn to internal resentment. Myatt (2012) in a report addresses that, an individual who is effective in managing difficult conversations, will not buy into others’ acts of manipulative or self-serving behavior. Such an individual will be aware of the emotional deceit that someone would play so as to point the conflict towards another direction. This is often a weapon to avoid or win over a potential conflict.

Whether to Escape or Avoid a Difficult Conversation.

Harvard Law School pointed out that when we are faced in a conflicting conversation, we must be aware of our emotional traps. Perceiving our counterparts as “suspicious” or “untrustworthy” will direct you in an irrational approach. Your brain shuts down and your first instinct would be to escape from the situation. Challenging yourself before choosing to escape is necessary.

Robert Mnookin (2022), a law school professor, suggests that we must explore the following areas:

  • Interests. “What are my interests in this conversation.” Further exploring our counterpart’s interests towards the conversation.
  •  Alternatives. “What are my alternatives to the conversation?” What are my counterpart’s alternatives to the conversation?
  • Potential negotiated outcomes: “What potential deals can satisfy both of our interests?” (These outcomes may be better than the alternatives identified)
  • Costs: “What costs will the conversation involve (time, money, reputation)”
  • Implementation: “What are the odds that you both will be able to implement the deal made?”

Disengage from the blame game.

“This is unacceptable”. “It is all your fault.” “Weren’t you the one responsible to look over that section?” Individuals often use the blame game on others to redirect the responsibility away from them. To make the other person resolve the consequence that has taken place. According to Lee Ross, a psychologist; Disagreements can be based on a cognitive error where we attribute negative aspects of a situation to the internal characteristics of a person. “You’re a liar.” “You’re lazy.” “You have a bad attitude.” Whereas positive aspects of a situation are attributed as part of our own behavior.

  • In such an instance, you may feel personally attacked. In your attempt to defend, your response could be: lashing out, yelling back or even leaving the job.
  • Disengage from specific behaviors such as “looking for someone to assign blame” or “targeting and punishing the person”
  • Demonstrate a disinterested behavior in a situation that puts you in the blame game direction.

Your anger could offer a wrong message to the counterpart.

Katherine Shonk (2022), an editor for a Negotiation Newsletter; offers her insight into your emotions, when engaging in an interpersonal process. When in a disagreement, you may want your best to make the other person understand your point of view. Perhaps, you are even tempted to make use of power dynamics such as your anger, to seal the deal. But is it really a helpful strategy? Does it really give an impression that you are to be respected for your viewpoint in this argument? “In case the disagreement turns in the favor of your counterpart, your anger would offer a wrong message to them” as stated by Katherine. Your anger can tell them about who is the actual person frightened and lack the courage to win over.

To successfully execute a disagreement, it involves a lack of emotion. Asking questions can save yourself from getting involved in anger and switching the focus onto them. Furturmore, Quaquebeke and Felps (2016) found out that asking questions in a manner that allows the other person to offer clarity or details over their side of the story is a powerful leadership technique. They termed this behavior as respectful inquiry. An advantage that it brings in during the negotiation process is that it manages to satisfy the core psychological needs of the person, which are the need for competence, autonomy, and relatedness.

Engage in “What’s in it for me?”

It is often assumed that approaching difficult conversations may involve the use of “threats”, “demands” or “power.” Fortunately, a report by Harvard law school most the difficult conversations are approached in a format of bargaining. The “what’s in it for me?” analogy takes the consideration not only of what you may benefit from the conversation, but also the manner in which your counterpart may benefit from it. This would mean that your counterparts interests and motives would be as considered as yours.

The importance element

Lastly, evaluate the importance element during the process of negotiation. It is easy to lost track of what is important when we are busy proving our point to the other. Ask yourself: “How important is it for me to address and resolve this conflict? What battles exist just for the sake of conflict? What factors do not matter to me?” Practicing the importance and intensity of the disagreements will allow you to strategically align your approach toward it. 




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