Avoidance might be an accurate term to describe most people’s first reaction to the idea of conflict, even more so when it comes to the workplace. One survey found that more than 80% of people were at least a little bit afraid of a “scary conversation” they needed to have at work. “Fight or flight” is a natural response to disagreements, and how we handle these moments determines how our hardest conversations play out.

Though scary conversations are uncomfortable, they’re some of the most important to both parties involved. For one, putting off difficult discussions for too long leads to anxiety and often creates more challenging situations as time goes by. Addressing an issue early gives the other person the chance to make corrections before conditions worsen and gives you the chance to express feelings and give or receive valuable feedback. Those who can speak candidly with others are more likely to resolve problems, maintain their relationships, and even improve their work performance in the process.

It’s important to meet a tough talk head-on instead of shying away. Look at the discussion as an opportunity for resolution and growth. You might walk away from it with a new perspective of the situation and the other person — and hopefully a solution, so you don’t run into a similar situation again. The question remains: How exactly do you approach difficult conversations at work?

Here are a few good places to start:

1. Embrace courageous conversations.

With nearly 20% of employees in a recent survey still not speaking their minds at work, courageous conversations must start with leadership teams. Before venturing into conversations, establish a safe space for everyone to share their ideas, opinions, and concerns. If people don’t feel supported, their reservations will linger and they’ll be less engaged and responsive during discussions. As a leader, set the tone by opening up first. Share relevant information and ask genuine questions.

“Though the term ‘courageous conversations’ might not sound positive, it gives people the opportunity to express themselves openly and honestly,” explains Melanie Clark, chief marketing officer at Abstrakt Marketing Group, a business growth company that provides a complete suite of lead generation solutions. “No one is judging or laying blame. It’s all about understanding each other’s viewpoints and reaching some sort of agreement. Think of it as a meeting of the minds. A lot of positivity can come from that.”

More importantly, express the importance of this kind of open conversation, making sure to focus on interests — not positions or judgments. Ideally, each person will be able to feel comfortable when expressing their perspective in this kind of environment. You might even want to get the help of a facilitator to manage the conversation. They can keep an eye out for any nonverbal cues that might indicate someone’s discomfort or insecurity around the direction of the exchange and intervene if necessary.

2. Appreciate the person across the table.

Arriving at a mutually agreed-upon solution is the goal of courageous conversations, but finding the best solution isn’t usually possible without an appreciation for the person sitting across the table. Caroline Castrillon, career and life coach, suggests you “consider how the other person will feel during the conversation and give them time to process their emotions. Clearly explain why you’re having the meeting to help them fully understand your perspective.”

Monitor the pace of the conversation. Keep the cadence slow to allow all parties to arrive at the right words and minimize negative emotions. “If you see [the other person] struggling, pause for a minute so they can gather their thoughts,” writes Castrillon. “If they start to get emotional, appreciate how they must be feeling and reassure them that you’re providing this feedback because you care.”

It’s important to remember that difficult discussions should not be without feeling. In fact, these conversations usually touch the most sensitive parts of us; emotion is a reasonable response. In many instances, people might also be unaware of the issue you’re bringing forward. Give the other person the time and respect they deserve to process that information. After you’ve brought up a sensitive issue with someone, they also deserve to share their thoughts about what was just presented to them — and they deserve the courtesy of you listening. Bring suggestions to the table, but also leave room to brainstorm ideas together for a path forward.

3. Follow up after the conversation ends.

Rarely (if ever) are courageous conversations one-and-done, especially when it comes to sensitive subjects. Financial journalist Tom Anderson agrees: “Some people have delayed reactions to bad news and may experience feelings of frustration, embarrassment, or resentment after leaving the conversation. Be aware of this and check up on the other person periodically to make sure they’re doing okay.”

“If there seems to be some tension, schedule time for an offsite get together that doesn’t revolve around work talk — like grabbing a cup of coffee — where you meet as individuals and not colleagues,” explains Anderson. Prior to an out-of-office meeting, however, don’t forget to take time to collect your own thoughts about the conversation. Recount the details of what was discussed in writing or jot down your feelings about how things stand, whatever helps you organize your mind.

Doing this ensures that you are calm and ready to fully show up when you meet again. Feedback should be constructive, not tainted by personal perceptions or your own emotions. Any subsequent discussions are important to keeping the relationship intact and moving forward with positivity. If more action is necessary later, the last thing you want is to come in with guns blazing and be met with further resistance to change because things ended poorly before.

Although scary conversations can be uncomfortable, they’re often a necessity. Situations will only get worse if you don’t address the problems that cause them. As long as you tap into your empathy, take your emotion out of the discussion, and remain open to a solution, you’re taking a step in the right direction. You might even find yourself discovering something new and building stronger relationships than ever before.


  • Brittany Hodak

    Keynote Speaker and Author

    Brittany Hodak is an award-winning entrepreneur, author, and customer experience speaker who has delivered keynotes across the globe to organizations including American Express and the United Nations. She has written hundreds of articles for Forbes, Adweek, Success, and other top publications; she has appeared on programs on NBC, CBS, ABC, and CNN; and she has worked with some of the world’s biggest brands and entertainers, including Walmart, Disney, Katy Perry, and Dolly Parton. She originated the role of Chief Experience Officer at Experience.com, and she founded and scaled an entertainment startup to eight figures before exiting. Entrepreneur magazine calls her “the expert at creating loyal fans for your brand.” Brittany’s debut book, Creating Superfans, will be in stores on January 10, 2023.