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Bring On the Conflict: Discussing Difficult Topics at Work

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Some topics are tough to discuss. Whether it’s asking for a raise, discussing performance issues or managing conflicts between coworkers, difficult conversations can easily become negative without the right tools.

For those who want to become better at navigating these types of discussions, I highly recommend reading Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters the Most by Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton and Sheila Heen.

Drawing from their experiences as teachers at Harvard Law School and the Harvard Negotiation Project, Stone, Patton and Heen outline the common pitfalls that can derail difficult conversations. Emotions, misunderstandings or hierarchical structures can all deter individuals from participating in productive conversations that will benefit the company.

The entire book is worth the read, but here are three important takeaways I had:

1. Rethink Conflict
By nature, conflict isn’t necessarily bad. In a healthy context, it can facilitate new ideas and even strengthen the trust and respect within a team. But when conflict degenerates into taking sides over seeking a solution, it does more harm than good.

Some people aren’t used to healthy conflict and, therefore, see it as something to be avoided at all costs. That’s why it’s important to help your team appreciate the difference between the healthy, constructive kind and the destructive kind. Keep them focused on the company’s best interest instead of supporting or rejecting ideas on the basis of who presented them.

2. Forget About Who’s Right
For some people, conceding to another’s idea means overcoming their pride. To avoid bruised egos or hurt feelings, direct the conversation to what is right instead of who is right. This shifts the mentality from a disagreement between opponents to a partnership in finding the best solution. Only when each party can focus on the actual issue at hand—determining how it positively or negatively impacts the company—will you be able discern together the best way to proceed.

3. Give Your Team Members the Benefit of the Doubt
When a coworker’s actions have a negative impact on you or your team, it is important to distinguish the intent from the impact. Never assume the other party intended to harm you or your department. Remain calm, express your concern and collaborate with them to make it right. It may have been nothing more than a misunderstanding.

If you want to read the whole thing, I recommend buying a copy of Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters the Most. It’s a practical resource for any ethical leader’s bookshelf, and it won’t cost you more than $10.

Always remember, Leadership is a Lifestyle.

— Ryan W. Hirsch
Program Manager, NASBA Center for the Public Trust