How can I have difficult conversations at work?

I remember being younger and watching my nana eat something spicy, so much so that her eyes would water and her nose would run. Now I’m older and nowhere near as wise, I react the same way to spicy food, but my stomach screams obscenities afterwards because it doesn’t like it.


It’s human nature to build images in our minds when we read something, but I wonder what came to your mind when I described my Gran? What colour was her hair? What colour were her eyes or skin? Was English her first language? What are your unconscious biases? Do these questions make you feel uncomfortable?


Discussing big topics at work


The only reason I ask this is that the topic of immigration is currently more popular than false eyelashes on contestants on a reality TV show. When Rishi Sunak was recently asked about immigration levels and if he planned to reduce them, he initially said, “No comment.”

Unsurprisingly he did a U-turn shortly after and said he would be “looking at it.”


The phobia that arises when “immigration” is mentioned isn’t something new. We’ve heard it from “those people” that voted for Brexit, read the headlines in certain newspapers that make us cringe and then moved on, but is that enough? If we can’t discuss the big topics amongst ourselves, can we be expected to have uncomfortable conversations at work?


Please don’t think I am suggesting that you discuss immigration on Monday morning at work because people will move away quicker than a toddler who has drunk a can of a fizzy drink. However, what conversations do you have at work? What conversations do you never discuss at work in fear that there could be a backlash?


For me, it isn’t just immigration policies; it’s about creating a space of open-mindedness where your peers at work can discuss what makes them uncomfortable and/or like an outsider. This isn’t limited to immigration or race; it can expand to sexuality, gender, disability and mental health.


So what can you do to have difficult conversations at work? 


Difficult conversations – some advice


  1. Be open and compassionate 


I used to work with a woman who was in a relationship with another woman who also happened to be a chef and made fantastic food. She used to call her female partner, Malcolm, to fit into her previous employment because she knew she wouldn’t be accepted for dating another woman.


For us, it was a small reminder that not everyone is accepting or tolerant of others, their relationships and their lives. It’s possible that when someone describes their partner, you will build an irrelevant picture in your mind, so you could just ask.


  1. Be clear


We’ve all experienced that person at work who doesn’t stop talking, causing us to inevitably switch off and miss the whole point of the conversation. This can also happen when emotions get involved and talking to someone about a sensitive topic – some information may inevitably get lost.


It’s helpful to send an email afterwards outlining what was discussed to avoid any misunderstanding and clarify your intention for the conversation.


  1. Expect to get things “wrong”


Mistakes are unavoidable because we’re all human – unless you are secretly from another planet. There’s a strong possibility that one day you will offend someone at work; however, it will be unintentional.


As Brits, we are Olympic athletes when it comes to avoiding unpleasant conversations, yet it is unavoidable in life. Be kind to yourself if a mistake happens and apologise to the other person.


  1. Don’t fall back on apathy 


Consider saying something when someone says or does something at work that makes you feel uncomfortable. It doesn’t have to be a big deal, but by swallowing your discomfort because you don’t want others to feel embarrassed, it can accumulate and erupt in another scenario that may be unrelated.


For instance, if you have a history of mental health issues in your family and people on your team are always calling clients “crazy” or “insane”, which makes you feel uncomfortable, you can simply suggest showing some compassion by changing their language. It’s a gentle reminder that mental health affects everyone at some point in their life without being confrontational.


Alternatively, if this isn’t applied, it’s worth sharing a personal experience that you feel secure exposing so people understand why the words make you uneasy. More often than not, people will then associate your experience with the words they use because they have a relationship with you – and stop.


  1. Look at things from a different lens 


I remember reading holocaust survivor Victor Frankl’s biography, ‘Man’s Search for Meaning.’ He lost his whole family, wife and life’s work in the concentration camps and said, “When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.”


Victor Frankl applied this throughout his life because he understood that we can’t control others, only ourselves. People are constantly changing, so our workplaces will reflect this. Therefore we meet and work with diverse people who see things differently from us.


We’re not taught how to navigate the minefield of work relationships, but it’s something we can get better at through time. Consider booking one of our Communication Skills or Unconscious Bias workshops to understand yourself and your peers better.


Alternatively, get in touch with Doug, who can create a bespoke session to match your organisation’s needs –

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