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Having difficult conversations at work

Monday, June 20, 2016  
Posted by: Barbara Francella
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By Jo Miller

This blog’s headline is not “Dealing with difficult people.” It’s about “difficult conversations.” Don’t think there’s a difference? Then you might find some surprises here.  

Joining me as a panelist during a webinar regarding difficult conversations, Betty Chan-Bauza of Early Warning explained: “Sometimes, the hardest conversations aren't with people we would consider ‘difficult.’ They're with people who like you and respect you — who mean a lot to you.” 

Related: 5 wrong ways to apologize

Chan-Bauza began her career as an industrial engineering major. Somewhere along the path to becoming a vice president of product management, she discovered that transparent communication could be a powerful productivity tool.

Having difficult conversations can be scary, she admits, and, for many people, the prospect of having to have one of these conversations can trigger the proverbial fight-or-flight response. “Predominantly, people will take the flight method,” she says. “But this skill is second only to public speaking as a critical workplace skill, especially for managers.”

Another panelist, Erin Chapple, group program manager at Microsoft, noted that “dealing with difficult conversations is not something to be feared, but something to have in your tool belt. In the workplace, relationships are key to getting things done. We often think conflict and differences push people apart, but in reality these conversations can do a lot to strengthen relationships. I've found that having the difficult conversation can be one of the greatest ways to bond with someone because you are listening to them and understanding them.”

Chan-Bauza agrees: “Through having these conversations, you actually gain cooperation, strengthen the relationship with the individual and assist the company in achieving its goals.”

Work at it — it's a skill

Still, people underestimate their ability to acquire this skill. “Oftentimes,” Chapple says, “people say, ‘I'm not good at conflict,’ and they avoid it. I'd like to challenge them to say, ‘You know what, actually, we're all capable human beings. We can work at it.’ It's a skill.” 

Here are strategies Chan-Bauza and Chapple share with emerging leaders who want to build stronger workplace relationships:

  • Build mutual respect by listening and learning. 
  • Take personal accountability to defuse a situation. 
  • Put yourself in others’ shoes and respond from that position. 
  • Ensure people feel heard before moving forward.
  • Don’t leave a difficult situation unaddressed. 
  • Don’t expect instant gratification. 
  • Don’t react, take time to plan your response.
  • Don’t assume someone else has ill intentions. 

As you can see, dealing with difficult discussions doesn’t have to become the boogeyman we often make it out to be. Like other leadership skills you’ve mastered, it can — and should — be learned.

Jo Miller, CEO of Women's Leadership Coaching Inc. and founding editor of, facilitates the NEW Leadership Academy webinars designed to help emerging leaders core skills and prepare for top management roles in their organizations.

Views expressed in blogs, posts and user comments are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Network of Executive Women or its Officers, Board members and corporate partners.

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