A 5-step framework for mastering difficult conversations at work

Written by Juniper, Illustrated by Simon Lavallée-Fortier
Published on November 29, 2018 | Reading time: 7m

Just like in our personal lives, difficult conversations will inevitably crop up at work. Yes, they can be uncomfortable, but they can also be great learning opportunities. The reward at the other side of a tough talk is much greater than opting out of the conversation and can allow us to work better together, understand different perspectives, practice empathy, and grow as individuals.

While all difficult conversations are unique, it doesn’t mean you can’t prepare for them. We’ve developed a clear 5-step approach called P.A.R.E.S to help serve as a guide for structuring your thoughts and approach for whatever difficult conversation comes your way.

Here are the 5 steps that are key to mastering difficult conversations:

5 Steps to tackle any difficult conversation at work

Consider the following workplace scenario:

A colleague’s comment makes you – and perhaps your team – feel uncomfortable. They seem to think it’s amusing, but the comment is downright inappropriate.

It’s clear the employee’s inappropriate behavior could foster a negative work environment, and you’re wondering how to bring this up to them.

In moments like these, it’s important to remember that although a person’s behavior may have been inappropriate, their intention was probably not to offend or to hurt anyone’s feelings. We all have different points of view, making it sometimes harder for us to imagine how a comment or action might be perceived. The key is to take time to understand the underlying reasons for this behavior, while also helping the person see how it affected others so that it can be avoided in the future.

Let’s apply the five-step approach to the previous workplace scenario.

1. Prepare: Set the stage

The first step in approaching any difficult conversation is to gather your thoughts and inform the other person, calmly and with care, that you would like to discuss the event. We call this first step “Prepare”.

This is where you get ready for the conversation and set the stage for it. Proper preparation will make these conversations less intimidating and much more effective. It also demonstrates that you took the time to reflect on your feelings and those of your employee.

  • Have an opening statement. Be ready to name the issue and give one or more specific examples to illustrate the behavior you want to change.
  • Identify and be ready to honestly express your feelings about the issue and how it affected both you and the team.
  • Schedule a one-on-one meeting in advance. Don’t surprise people with these difficult conversations. If someone feels caught off-guard, they’re more likely to become defensive.
  • When you propose this discussion, frame it in a positive tone. The point is to not make the other person feel like they’re in trouble.
  • Make sure you express your commitment to resolving the issue and finding a solution that works for both of you.

In our scenario, one way to suggest the conversation could be:

“Could we please take a moment this week to talk about how you said X? It made me uncomfortable and I’d like to explain why. I’d also like to get your perspective on the matter to make sure everyone is comfortable at work, including you.”

2. Ask: Listen as if your only job is to understand

Person listening actively to a heart with a stethoscope

Here, your job is to give them the space to express themselves while making sure you genuinely understand their perspective. To do this, you’ll need to listen actively in order to ask the right follow-up questions afterward.

  • Thank them for their time and restate the reason for the conversation.
  • Ask for their point of view and make an effort to see the issue from their perspective. This is where you need to flex your empathic muscles.
  • Be open-minded and curious. We’ve all experienced the world differently and therefore don’t all think the same way.
  • Stick with open-ended questions (why, what, how) to encourage discussion and make things feel less like an interrogation.

Here’s one way you could apply this second step to our scenario:

“Thanks for taking the time to talk with me about this. I really appreciate it. As I mentioned, I felt uncomfortable when you said X. I’d like to understand why you said that.”

3. Recognize: Acknowledge their perspective

This is where you show that you really listened to them, without necessarily showing that you agree with them. Most of us just really want to be heard, and this ensures that the other person understands your commitment to resolving the issue.

  • Grant them the benefit of the doubt and don’t conclude that they acted with the intention of hurting anyone.
  • Avoid making your own assumptions about the situation. Making assumptions is a dangerous game which often leads to miscommunication.
  • Show that you are actively listening by validating their feelings and paraphrasing their argument. This helps to avoid any misunderstandings.
  • Be self-aware. Recognize the role you may have played in the situation and ask yourself if you displayed similar behaviors in the past. It’s always a good reflex to examine your own behavior.
  • Remember that acknowledgment does not equal agreement. You can recognize a different perspective without agreeing with it. If the other person misinterprets your paraphrasing for acknowledgment, clearly express that at this point, you are only trying to understand how they lived the situation.

For this third step, here’s an example of how you can properly recognize someone’s perspective without actually agreeing.

“Thanks for taking the time to share and explain your perspective. This is what I understood, and how you feel about the situation: (reiterate what they said to demonstrate that you listened). Does that sound right to you?”

Note: Remember not to go so far as to agree that their comments are harmless or funny if they aren’t. You can express understanding without expressing agreement. Not giving them the feedback they need, even if it’s tough, won’t help them in the long run.

4. Express: Clarify your position

This is all about making sure you are heard as well. You need to express your perception of what happened clearly and without apologies. It might sound harsh, but “ruinous empathy”, as Kim Scott calls it, won’t help the other person grow. What you want to do as a leader is learn “radical candor”, where you can care personally and challenge directly.

  • Clarify your perspective, but don’t minimize their take on things. Explain your side of the story, without accusing them of having wrongly perceived the situation.
  • Be assertive about what matters to you. Don’t agree just to end the conversation. As a leader, you’re protecting the rest of the team from experiencing this again.
  • Don’t be afraid to be vulnerable. Nothing will get solved if you bury your feelings, and being vulnerable might inspire them to do the same, leading to a truly authentic conversation.
  • Incorporate their side of the story and their underlying reasons (but only to the extent that you agree with them) into your explanation. With this complete picture, you can identify any misunderstandings or miscommunications.

Clarifying your perspective in our scenario could sound like:

I understand you meant to say X, which is fair. However, what you said was inappropriate as it doesn’t align with the values of the company, and makes me feel that you’re not thinking of us all as one team.

5. Solve: Solution time!

Everyone is part of the solution. Collaboration illustrated through 3 people adding their own piece of the puzzle

Ending a difficult conversation without an action plan is like preparing cookies without putting them in the oven. This is where you and the other party work to build a sustainable, long-term solution based on understanding and trust. Having a clear plan also ensures accountability, and acts as a reference to return to should something arise again.

  • If some points on either side are still unclear, go back to asking questions. Difficult conversations are rarely linear and you should not jump to solving them until you’re sure both perspectives are on the table.
  • Ask them what they believe the solution could be and then brainstorm together. This will make it easier to find a good fix and hold each other accountable.
  • Find ways to be constructive by building on their ideas (to the extent that they are useful)
  • Thank them for their time and openness, then be sure to establish clear next steps. An action plan to implement change going forward is key.

Going back to our scenario, some key points to bring up in this final step would be:

“Moving forward, how can we all avoid a repeat of this type of situation?”

“I suggest we find a way to share this commitment with the rest of the team by the end of the week.”

“Thank you again for being receptive and helping improve our work environment.”

Like anything in life, the more you address difficult conversations with a positive and solution-oriented approach, the better you’ll get at it – and the less awkward it will feel. Moreover, tackling these conversations will contribute to a healthier and more open workplace. You got this!

What are the most difficult conversations you’ve had at work?