Uncomfortable Conversations: How to Navigate Them

I have been privy to many conversations with colleagues at work and friends working in other sectors recently about having difficult and uncomfortable conversations with people when they say something or do something inappropriate at work.

Sadly, many of my female colleagues feel as though they can’t speak up when someone makes a rude or inappropriate comment, especially when the comment is perceived as being made “innocently,” without malice, or is purely ignorance-based. This is dead wrong. If you are made to feel uncomfortable because of the comments made by another, innocently or otherwise, you are well within your rights to address the individual that made you feel that way – and frankly you should.

If you don’t bring it up, the person may not realize they said or did anything wrong and they won’t course correct. If you don’t in the case of a person who is fully aware they said something wrong, they will continue to do it because you are giving them the upper hand by not “calling them out.” At a minimum in the latter case, even if they don’t change, they will know that you “see” them and they will likely curb or change their behavior in your presence.managing people for the first time

I am the first to admit that I do not relish having uncomfortable conversations and like most people, my preference is to avoid them. However, as a manager and a person who prefers to confront problems rather than bury them, I accept that uncomfortable conversations are part of the everyday workplace and must be handled. Here are some tips to help you assess and navigate them.

1.) Keep it to facts, facts, facts. There are facts and then there are emotional responses to comments. In a scenario where you must enter a conversation with someone who has made an inflammatory comment, inadvertently or otherwise, the best way to proceed is by sticking to the facts. Approach them how you would want to be approached and stick to the facts, though it is okay to share how what they said impacted you and others.

2.) Remain objective. Before you speak to someone, be clear about your intended outcome, so that when you speak to someone you can focus on changing the behavior or action and avoid repeating a pattern. Remember that the conversation needs to be focused objectively. You both need to share insights based on the facts and, where applicable, suggest ways to improve.

3.) Look at things from their perspective. As difficult as this may be, depending upon on how egregious or ignorant the comment of the other person is, consider where they are coming from. What factors are behind the things they are saying or doing? Thinking through what the other person’s viewpoint is may help guide you in finding a way to convey your message in a way they will be able to understand.

4.) Be direct. Another way to handle an awkward conversation or situation is to simply confront the person. You can say, “I found what you said to be offensive (or inappropriate). This is why it bothered me.”  This approach can sometimes take the other party by surprise, but it also puts them in a position of listening and suddenly becoming acutely self-aware. This is a great position for them to be in when you explain why what they said was offensive, allowing you to turn the conversation into a “teachable” moment.

You may be asking how to do I begin an uncomfortable conversation?  Here are some battle-tested conversation openers:

  • I need to tell you something that might be difficult to hear.
  • I have something I’d like to discuss with you that I think will help us work together more effectively.
  • I need your help with what just happened. Do you have a few minutes to talk?
  • I think we have different perceptions about _____________________. I’d like to hear your thinking on this.
  • I’d like to talk about ___________________. I think we may have different ideas about how to _____________________.
  • I’d like to see if we might reach a better understanding about ___________. I want to hear your perspective about this and share my perspective as well.

An essential element of having “uncomfortable conversations” is remaining in control of yourself. Be aware of your purpose and the energy you give off. Before you approach the other party, take a moment to center yourself, take a deep breath, then start the conversation.

If you feel yourself getting off center, take a moment to collect yourself and get back to center before continuing, otherwise the conversation has a stronger likelihood of going “sideways” in a negative non-productive manner, which defeats the purpose of having the conversation in the first place. By choosing to remain calm/centered, at least outwardly, you will help the other person remain calm and centered, and the outcome of the uncomfortable conversation will be more productive, useful and purposeful.

For more on having difficult or uncomfortable conversations, check out these articles:

Conflict Management Styles Cheat Sheet

The Gift of a Difficult Conversation

6 Tips for Keeping Your Cool During Difficult Conversations

Lia Miller is part of the GovLoop Featured Contributor program, where we feature articles by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Contributor posts, click here.

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Steph Drahozal

These are great tips and I love the examples for how to start conversations!

I also appreciate that you brought up the point of bringing up a topic even if someone didn’t do/say something maliciously. It’s true we/they will never know if what they are doing/saying is offensive unless someone tells them!

Lia Miller

Thank you. I am so glad the conversation starters are useful. Yes I think if we don’t speak up when someone says or does something in appropriate we are just as culpable for our feelings of discomfort since we’ve done nothing to change the action.

Donna Villareal

Yes, the starter examples are very helpful suggestions–along with the reminder to start and strive to remain calm and objective. Many thanks for the thoughtful article, Lia!