Careers

10 tips for dealing with difficult conversations at work

Steve Carell as Michael Scott in "The Office"
NBC | Getty
Steve Carell as Michael Scott in "The Office"

Difficult conversations are all part and parcel of working life.

From asking for a promotion to dealing with a frustrating colleague, we're each bound to face countless tricky discussions throughout the course of our careers.

But instead of avoiding those moments, learning how to tackle them head-on can be one of the best ways to advance your career, according to the British Council Professional Development Centre, which runs training courses on workplace communication.

It has identified 10 simple steps which it says can be applied across the board to help make potentially awkward encounters go more smoothly.

"Difficult conversations, although hard for both parties, enable people to make choices and decisions, to learn and to grow, and can enable breakthroughs in relationships which can be incredibly productive and positive," the educational organization said in a training note.

"You have to be sensitive to the company and the culture," Amanda Moody, director of the development group's Singapore arm, told CNBC Make It. "But these tips can be applied to many different scenarios and age groups."

Here are the 10 tips and how to put them to work:

1. Know your purpose

First and foremost, it's important to figure out why you are having the conversation.

Your intentions should be more than simply to "get something off your chest," which implies a one-sided dialogue. Instead, they should include the other person, too, and your shared reasons for having the conversation.

2. Know your goal

Knowing your goal goes hand in hand with knowing your purpose, but focuses on the outcomes of the conversation. Outline what you hope to achieve from the discussion and your reasons for it.

3. Preparation is key

Once you've worked out your purpose and your goal, think about a few key messages that will help you convey them. Also give some thought to your conversation partners' likely reactions and how you will deal with them.

That does not mean writing a script, however. You should be able to respond as the conversation develops — the other person's response might just surprise you.

4. Stay on message

Once you're ready to have the conversation, make sure you stay true to those key messages and don't let yourself be derailed by the other person's emotions or reactions.

5. Listen actively

Keep an eye out for what is being communicated both verbally and non-verbally. For example, does their body language match what they are saying?

When responding, make sure you take the whole picture into account.

6. Ask questions

Gain a better understanding of their point of view by asking questions. Open questions are best for drawing out insightful responses, while "why" questions can provoke defensiveness and should be avoided.

7. Show empathy

Try to put yourself in the other person's shoes and be empathetic to their feelings. Avoid talking about yourself and your experiences and focus on the impact of the situation for them specifically.

8. Be open-minded

Try to approach the conversation with an open mind. If you're harboring negative feelings then it's far less likely to result in a positive outcome. Plus, there's always a chance that you could be wrong.

9. Recognize their right

Understand that they have a right to be angry, upset, frustrated or emotional about your comments, especially if you have given critical feedback or unwelcome news.

Sometimes the most valuable outcome from a difficult conversation can be giving the other person the opportunity to express themselves and feel heard.

10. Know that the end of the conversation is not the end

Finally, make sure you're available to deal with the possible fallout from the conversation. If you can't be, you should perhaps think twice about having it.

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