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5 Important Things to Do to Have Tough Convos


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Difficult conversations are some of the most stressful challenges in any workplace. These discussions can be even more difficult to navigate in diverse workplaces, since people with more privilege need to learn to be considerate of racial and gender elements.


As unpleasant as these conversations are, you can't avoid them. When you avoid these essential discussions, performance issues, misconduct, and other problems persist.

In this article, we will share some guidance on planning a discussion while thinking about the racial, gender, and cultural differences that will come into play.


What stops us from having difficult conversations?

Clinical psychologist and podcaster Nick Wignall discussed why people avoid having difficult conversations. Wignall claims that people often blame themselves for lacking the communication skills to address these issues. People also frequently say they avoid discussions because they feel the other party is too defensive or unreasonable to benefit from the conversation.


However, he states that these are just excuses people tell themselves. Instead, Wignall argues that the most significant reason people avoid difficult conversations is anxiety or shame. They are worried that the other person won’t react well or they will feel guilty after. They may also be afraid of the consequences of calling out someone of a higher rank. In a diverse workplace, you may also be afraid of being sexist or racist by addressing concerns with a female or Black employee.


Michael Schneider, the Human Resources Director for InSource Technologies, Inc., echoes Wignall’s sentiments in an article in Inc. “We avoid difficult conversations because of the awkwardness and uncomfortable nature of the situation,” Schneider writes.


Consequences of avoiding difficult conversations

While there are understandable reasons people avoid having difficult conversations, there are consequences for failing to have them, including unresolved problems, resentment that harms productivity, discord, and loss of trust. One study by VitalSmarts estimates that the average cost of not having important conversations is $7,500.

Essential steps for having difficult conversations

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When preparing to have a difficult conversation, you need to get into the right mindset and formulate a plan to approach the discussion. The following tips will make things easier.


1. Control your emotions to avoid offending the other person, especially if you have more privilege

Your own emotions might deter you from having difficult conversations. However, they may also derail the outcome if you don’t manage them effectively. You might come across as insensitive or mean-spirited if you are very upset and don't want to hear the other person's perspective. In a diverse workplace, failing to check your emotions may also lead to you being tactless or unaware of your privilege.


For example, you may be more likely to interrupt the other person if you can't control your frustration. You may come across as condescending if you are a man speaking to a woman, since women are interrupted more frequently. If you stay calm, you will be less likely to cut them off.


You might also be more likely to make harsh accusations if you can't manage your anger, which may be unintentional microaggressions. Confident Black women are often viewed as "aggressive," which is an accusation you want to avoid. Again, if you control your emotions, you will be less likely to make these insensitive statements.

2. Step outside your privilege to understand the other person's needs and feelings

You must be sensitive to the other person's needs and feelings before having a difficult discussion. In an inclusive workplace, you need to be mindful of the perspectives and challenges of minority and female employees. Here are a couple of examples:

  • You might be concerned that a pregnant woman's productivity has slipped. You might be tempted to blame the problem on her condition, when the real problem might be that she merely needs additional accommodations.

  • You may feel that an employee from a different culture is being rude, when you are really just misinterpreting their language due to cultural differences.

The conversation will go more smoothly if you put yourself in the other person's shoes and show you are open to the views of underrepresented groups. Katherine Giscombe, Vice President of Catalyst, states that workers from majority groups can communicate better with underrepresented groups by showing inclusion. This includes using language such as “I know this is important to you..." or "I’d like to understand more about your feelings.”

3. Plan what you intend to say

You don’t want to improvise when having a difficult conversation. The discussion will go more smoothly if you identify the purpose of the conversation and the key points you need to cover. When you plan the conversation ahead of time, you can make sure your message is more straightforward yet tactful. You can also keep it more concise so you and the recipient don’t feel drained by a long, drawn-out discussion. Another reason to plan your conversation in advance is that you can be more careful about being sensitive to racial, cultural, and gender differences.


4. Hold the discussion at the right time and place

Timing is critical when holding a discussion. You don’t want to have the discussion when the other person appears overwhelmed or frustrated because they may get more defensive and be less likely to hear you out. One option is to speak to them when they are returning from their lunch break when they feel less stressed. You can also ask them to come talk to you when they have a free moment, so they can have the discussion on their own terms and when they are in the right mindset.


You also need to choose the best place to have a difficult conversation. Your office might not be the best place, since it may seem too formal and confrontational. Instead, you might want to hold the conversation in a more relaxed setting, such as a meeting room or a coffee shop where you can sit adjacent to each other. You may also want to hold the conversation over the phone if you are worried your body language might be off-putting. Phone calls can be preferable when speaking with employees from other cultures that you don't know well yet, since you might unintentionally misinterpret each other's body language.

5. Difficult conversations are unpleasant but necessary

The just do it attitude applies here perfectly. Even if you don't have all the best circumstances and factors aligned above, don't not have the tough convo if you can. Communication is the solvent for all human discord and without it, the situation cannot improve. Of course there are more effective ways to communicate, such as those listed above, however I've seen and experienced first hand the ability of critical thinkers and good intentioned people to be able to forgive another for saying something callous, because they understand people, they understand our weaknesses as humans, and that most of the time we are good people simply in fear or reaction mode, trying to protect ourselves when we lash out at others.


Nobody really enjoys having difficult conversations. However, they are essential for addressing personal and professional concerns. Because after all companies are made of teams, teams are made of individuals and individuals are not perfect. Fortunately, these conversations will be easier if you follow the guidelines listed above. But don't forget that we all deserve a little grace and could definitely benefit from communications training.


Are you ready to start having better conversations in a diverse workplace? Give us a call and we will be happy to help you have more productive, inclusive discussions!

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