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6 Tips for Having Those Tough Talks

No one likes confronting a cheating vendor or slacking worker, but these suggestions can help make the best of workplace conflict.
June 19, 2015

Have you ever been rudely interrupted during a meeting? How about having to deal with a business partner who just can't keep up their end of the bargain—ever?

During these uncomfortable situations, you may have avoided confronting the other person because you weren't sure what to say and didn't know how the conflict would affect your relationship. That's a fairly common response, because no one wants to be the "bad guy" or have the awkward conversation that's necessary to work things out. Instead, most people just want to be liked and accepted by others, so they simply let it go.

But if you did let it go, you shouldn't be surprised when these situations happen again. That's because avoiding the issue won't make it go away—by doing nothing, it's bound to rear its ugly head again and again.

When you're running a company, being able to properly handle conflicts is part of the job. If you can't, the negative issues could eventually have a major negative impact on your bottom line. 

So no matter how much you want to avoid conflicts, the reality is, you need to learn how to deal with them in order to affect positive change. Following are six tips that can help you get over your fear of confrontation and learn to deal with conflicts in a reasonable way.

1. Prepare

To turn a negative confrontation into a positive interaction, business etiquette coach Barbara Pachter says you first need to know what's really bothering you. For instance, if you're having an issue with one of your employees, you need to identify exactly what it is about that employee's work that's bothering you most.

Once you know which aspect of their work you're really having a problem with, focus on what you want them to do, not on what you want them to stop doing. For example, instead of telling your employee to stop being late, tell them it's important that they be alert and on time for the daily morning meetings.

Finally, once you've identified the issue and outcome you want, you need to plan how you're going to bring up the issue, what points you'll raise and what examples you'll offer of the behavior you're asking them to change. Always prepare ahead of time so you know exactly what your motives are and can communicate them clearly and effectively to the other person.

2. Have Proof

Whatever issue it is that you want to bring up, it's never enough to tell someone that you "think" or "feel" that they're argumentative or sloppy or not getting their work done on time. Doing so can come off as vague and unfair.

Instead, it'll be much easier to talk to them if you have documentation to back up your claim. For example, when you tell an employee they're falling behind on their work, you should be able to describe specific instances of complaints from customers or co-workers that you can show them. Having proof helps you more easily explain why you're having a conversation with this person in the first place.

3. "Nice" Doesn't Equal Respect

While being nice may make you feel good about yourself, it isn't going to help you manage your business properly, and your employees may stop taking you seriously, Pachter says in her book, The Power of Positive Confrontation. What will make them respect you is the ability to deal with difficult situations head-on before they become an even bigger problem.

“If you’re in a leadership position, you need to be polite and powerful,” Pachter says. “It’s about balance—you can be a little friendly, but you should also hold people accountable.”

4. Stay Calm and Positive

Confronting someone doesn't have to be the aggressive situation you might imagine in your head. While it might be hard to get started—and even unpleasant in the beginning—you can have a very calm conversation that will make you feel much better once it's over.

One key way to do that is to keep it short and simple. When making your point, make your main statement, listen to what the other person has to say, and be clear about what you expect moving forward.

A good way to keep conflicts calm and positive is to start the conversation with a positive statement, such as "I know you've been working really hard lately." After you acknowledge their contribution, bring up the primary issue, lay out your proof and give the other person a chance to respond. Once all these things happen and you've both said what you need to say, don't get sidetracked into discussing other issues. Instead, stick to one issue per conversation to keep communication clear and efficient. Once you've covered that issue, move on.

5. Keep Your Business Goals in Mind

If your main objective is to grow your business, then everything you do should help to make that happen. When you decide to put things off, like a tense conflict, you're inevitably hurting your business. Confronting someone may not make you feel good, but it's not about you—it's about what's best for your business. As a business owner, you need to constantly think about doing what's best for your employees, clients, shareholders and vendors.

6. Practice the Conversation

Before you can have a fair fight, you need to learn how to fight fair or, in this case, how to effectively debate, writes life coach Karen C.L. Anderson. Once you've prepared and gathered your proof, ask a trusted friend, significant other or business partner to help you practice by playing the role of the other person.

While you're practicing the conversation, pay close attention to how your body reacts or what your motivation is for the debate. Are you trying to win? Are you trying to be right? Those should not be your goals. You should simply review the issue, offer your proof and let the other person respond.

"Learning new skills takes time ... start slowly," Pachter says. "In time, you'll have a whole new way of operating in the world, a way that's more effective and positive. You may not always get what you want from the other person, but if you practice and work at having positive confrontations, you'll at least know where you actually stand with the other person. And you can be certain that you'll be the one standing tall."

If you don't like someone's behavior, it can be difficult to work up the courage to tell them what's bothering you. However, the more you do it, the better you'll get.

And remember, as your company grows, keeping the lines of communication open and clear will benefit you, your employees and your company.

Read more articles on leadership.

This article was originally published on August 22, 2014.

Photo: Getty Images