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When Good Conversations Go Bad, and How to Fix Them

I was recently chatting with a friend of mine about work, I’ll call her Kelly.
Kelly works at a government agency and had just recently been promoted. While this is something that is normally associated with enthusiasm and perhaps even relief, it wasn’t so with Kelly.
As she began telling me about this new position, her comments revolved around her level of stress and anxiety. Her two biggest complaints were that she wasn’t receiving the training that she was told she would receive and that the people she was now working with aren’t very nice, nor are they approachable. Kelly told me that she hopes things will improve and that she’ll get some training to go with her new position and responsibilities. She ended with, “hopefully my stress levels will diminish.”
Let’s take some time to focus on this issue of ‘approachability.’ After all, if it were easier to talk to her new co-workers, she could at least get more questions answered.
Think of all of the conversations that you have in a typical day at work…
They may be with people that you know quite well, but can oftentimes be with people you’re not familiar with. Some conversations will be with colleagues and some with supervisors or managers.
Now think deeper into these conversations. Some go well; they’re enjoyable and lead to a feeling of satisfaction, in other words, they worked.
Others, however, go wrong. Some may go around in circles or leave you feeling frustrated, unhappy, or perhaps even bad tempered.
While it’s often difficult to define specifically what we mean by a ‘good’ conversation, it’s pretty easy to recognize when you’re having a bad one.
For Kelly, added to this mix is the fact that she is a new supervisor and perhaps lacking in preparation for this role. Chances are, her stress is worsened because the conversations with her staff are not working out the way she would like them to.
So now that we’ve talked about ‘good’ and ‘bad’ conversations, let’s take a look at why those conversations can go sour.
For many of us, the most difficult conversations to have are generally those concerned with giving and receiving feedback. You know, the ones where we have to tell people things that they might not want to hear…
We’re often reluctant to give feedback because we’re concerned about the other person’s feelings. Additionally, we also have to worry about having to deal with the effect of their reaction on ourselves— If the person gets upset or angry, how will I deal with it?
Another problem is that even if we don’t deliver feedback in words, our behaviour tends to give our feelings away. Disapproval can be expressed with a frown, a sigh, or a critical look. We may even avoid eye contact altogether.
This problem is further exasperated because the other person knows (or at least senses) you disapprove, but doesn’t know why or what to do about it. My advice is to never rely on hints, forcing the other person to be a detective and pick up on clues. Instead, be clear and express your feedback.
So now put yourselves in that person’s shoes and we get the final problem with a ‘bad’ conversation: we are usually reluctant to hear feedback ourselves. All too often, we see it as a threat or a sign that the other person doesn’t like or value us as a person. When that happens, our emotions tend to get in the way and deny us the chance to learn something to our benefit.
There are ways, however, to give feedback and reduce the risk of an unproductive reaction.
So if you’re the one giving the feedback, ask yourself the following questions first:

  • Is this the right time and place?
  • Is the feedback being given at the service of the other person – or to make you feel better or bigger?
  • Will the other person find the feedback useful?
  • Do I understand enough about the situation?

If the answers point you in the direction to still provide feedback, make sure you follow these four simple guidelines:

  1. Describe the behaviour as you see it

In specific terms, state the facts as you understand them. People can accept accurate descriptions of their behaviour, but find it difficult to react positively to comments about their qualities as an individual.

  1. Explain the consequences

It’s not enough to just describe the behaviour; you also need to describe what happens as a result. The key is to stick to the facts, not to judge. You’re simply providing information to the other person that he or she may not even be aware of.

  1. Build on the other person’s strengths

You can help the other person keep the feedback in perspective by including positive comments about their overall behaviour, and by acknowledging the difficulty of the conversation that you are having.

  1. Invite the other person to respond

Think of feedback as a way of inviting people to explore their behaviour and see for themselves what needs to be done. Resist the temptation to tell them directly what they should or shouldn’t do.
If you still feel a bit hesitant to give feedback, here are some additional things to bear in mind:

  • Don’t try to pack in too much, stick to one clear issue. The human brain can’t cope with multiple things being thrown at it at the same time, especially at times of heightened stress.
  • Focus on the most recent concrete example—It’s difficult to go over issues that are ancient history.
  • Don’t lecture, encourage the other person to respond in a conversational way.
  • Keep your own emotions in check.
  • When talking to someone about a difficult subject, it can be helpful to be open about your concerns with their reaction.
  • Remember to do a LOT of listening.

Keep smiling…after all, emotions are contagious and your positive attitude is a powerful force!


About the Author:

Phil Eastwood is a former London Bobby who brings a thirty-five year career in policing to his role as Senior Partner of Fiore Group Training, a recognized leader in training top North American organizations. Phil is lead author of workplace training courses in respectful workplace training, workplace violence employee training, and leadership training seminars.

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