Navigating Difficult Conversations at Work: The 6 Cs to Talk Your Way into Them

by Pranav Ramesh
February 24, 2021
How to Handle Difficult Conversations at Work

Conflicts at work are inevitable, whether you are a leader, manager, or employee. These challenges can also be constructive and nurturing when handled in the right way. Sometimes an open conversation is all it takes to bring the underlying issues in a team to light and come up with an effective solution to tackle them. These conversations may be difficult, but at the same time, liberating. Having one difficult conversation does more to help a situation and move toward resolving an issue for the long term than brushing it under the carpet. Worse, non-communication or reciprocating with passive aggression will only intensify the problem.

Instead of being triggered and reacting blindly, train yourself to communicate clearly and respond with rationale.

It is time to tackle this issue head-on. Here are the 6 core steps to navigate difficult conversations at work:

1. Clarify

2. Confirm

3. Consult

4. Communicate

5. Concentrate

6. Check

Let’s take a look at each of them closely.

Clarify what Happened

Ask yourself why you are feeling upset or agitated. Dissect the situation to determine the instance, action, or the person that has made you feel uneasy. Answer the following questions to get more insight into the stimulus that affected you physically, emotionally, or mentally.

  • What exactly happened and who/what is responsible for it?
  • What was your mental state when this instance occurred? Were you relaxed? Tensed? Stressed? Angry?
  • Were there any external factors at play like background noise, interruptions from other clients, bad Wi-Fi signal, or a slow personal laptop?

Confirm the Root Cause That Triggered You

After you have figured out what really happened, the next step is to explore why these emotions were triggered in the first place. Often when someone or something affects your mental state, it could have more to do with you than them. Did you get upset because of a work-related reason or was it personal? Was it a missed deadline, a recurring error, or a personal remark? Or did it indirectly connect to something else that is already going on in your life? It is imperative that you pinpoint the core factor that caused you to feel insecure, angry, or targeted.

Consult With Someone Else To Get A Different Perspective

Once you have clarity on what happened and have confirmed the real reason that triggered you, the next step is to get a different point of view. You tend to merely think or act based on your emotions when upset; which is completely natural. But given how this concerns your profession and your co-worker or manager, it’s best to clear your head and take stock of things through a different set of eyes. Talking to a peer or mentor can also give you some unbiased perspective about the problem you are facing.

Communicate Clearly but Respectfully

Next, you need to actually confront the problem. There is nothing we humans cannot solve if both the parties involved in an argument or disagreement are willing to listen to each other with an open mind. Communication is key to resolving conflict. Talk to the person whose actions or speech have put you in this tough spot; be clear and collected. Also, ensure that you actively listen to their side of the story. Maybe it was unintentional. Maybe it was an accident. Maybe it is all a misunderstanding. You never know until you give the other person a chance to explain themselves.

Concentrate on the Resolution, Not Winning

Don’t lose focus on why you are having this difficult conversation. The agenda is not to win the argument or get an apology; it is to have a constructive discussion that could prevent such incidents from recurring. If the other person is not ready to listen to you or is adamant about their version of the narrative, try your best to calmly explain how their actions or words have raised a conflict that could potentially escalate, affecting the team as well as the organization. Be clear that your intentions are focused on the best interest of the company alone.

Check for Patterns

Lastly, come into terms with the fact that difficult conversations never go away; no team or organization is completely devoid of conflict, and it will stay this way as long as humans interact with each other. When people from different backgrounds come together, arguments and disagreements are baked into the package. If the conflicts that pop up are new, you have nothing to worry about, but if you detect a pattern that does not seem to end, it’s time to pull all stops to locate the root of the problem and get rid of it once and for all. This could involve talking to your managers, holding a supervised discussion, arranging for a conflict resolution workshop, re-evaluating the processes and workflows, and as a last resort, removing the team member(s) responsible.


No matter how much you dislike them, the truth is that difficult conversations foster better engagement within the organization, be it among employees, between leaders and employees, or among leaders. It is through differences of opinion and uncomfortable conversations that every employee can begin to master the early lessons of diplomacy and putting the needs of the company before their ego. And it is through difficult conversations that leaders grow and become strong enough to take on every challenge that comes their way. With practice, it gets easier every time.

Don’t avoid what you can resolve. Be stronger. Go further.

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