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How to Have Difficult Conversations at Work

As a software engineer, you may spend most of your time in front of a computer, but you’re still part of a human team. In any team, difficult conversations are inevitable. Whether you are an individual contributor or an engineering manager, you may eventually have to scrutinize your team’s approach to architecting a program, maintaining quality code, addressing a co-worker’s attitude toward a new task, or addressing a personality conflict.

The Importance of Communication at Work

Each of us has our own level of comfort related to difficult conversations, but it’s safe to say that these conversations aren’t easy for anyone. Additionally, bosses who hang up on you, defensive team members, and unreasonable clients can raise anxiety levels related to even a simple conversation. It’s easy to want to avoid difficult conversations at work, but we all know that procrastination won’t help the problem. Luckily, there are some steps you can take to prepare.

Before the Conversation: Maintain a Positive Mindset

We’ve written before about why good listeners make good leaders and how to have one-on-ones. Harvard Business Review lists a few other ways to prepare yourself for a conversation that makes you nervous:

  • Reframe the conversation with a positive outlook. If you expect the discussion to go poorly, it will be clear during the conversation itself. Positive visioning is helpful in any endeavor, and difficult conversations are no different. Before the conversation, think about your ideal outcome. It’s very possible that the conversation will go much better than you initially thought.
  • Have a flexible idea of what you want to address. You may want to write down your talking points beforehand, but preparing an entire script is unreasonable. It’s unlikely that the conversation will go exactly as planned. A script could create a situation where you are delivering a monologue instead of finding a solution together through dialogue.
  • Be honest, specific, and diplomatic. It’s important that you tell the truth during the conversation, but it’s equally important that you use language that your counterpart will be receptive to. Being either too blunt or too vague decreases your chances of achieving your desired result.

During the Conversation: Stay Present

No matter how much you prepare, any conversation can throw you some curveballs. Staying present during the conversation can help you pivot your approach, depending on what the other person says:

  • Listen and slow down. Know yourself as a communicator. Do you tend to talk rapidly without stopping? Slowing down helps you to be more conscious about what you are saying. If you can feel yourself getting defensive or reactive, pause and take a breath.
  • Use intentional body language. Body language delivers subtle but important messages about how you regard the other party. Crossed arms or a body turned to the other side of the room delivers the message that you’re unwilling to receive what they’re saying. Place both feet on the floor and put your hands on your knees. Face the person you’re talking with. Open body language helps deliver open communication.
  • Assume good intentions. Sometimes, assuming good intentions is hard, especially if we’ve been burned before. However, people often rise to meet the expectations we have for them and assuming the best (and communicating this through subtle verbal cues) can help us move toward the outcome that we want to achieve.

After the Conversation: What Have You Learned?

No matter how the conversation goes, you will have taken the first step in addressing the problem. Not addressing a challenging issue can eat away at you, affect your productivity at work, and distract you on the evenings and weekends. Whatever you learn—about both your communication strengths and the strengths of your team—will help you as your career moves forward.

A strong communicator is an essential part of any team. With planning, intention, and practice, anyone can improve their communication skills and learn to negotiate conflict gracefully. Have any other tips? We’d love to hear them below!