Home / News / Business Of Life /  Taking the sting out of tough talk


Conflict in the workplace can exact a huge price in terms of undermining teamwork, loss of productivity, emotional stress and absenteeism. A 2008 study of 5,000 people across nine countries by CPP, Inc., a US-based company that designs personality and organizational development assessments and tools, found that 85% of those surveyed had encountered some degree of conflict in the office. It defined conflict “as any workplace disagreement that disrupts the flow of work". Further, 27% of the people reported that the conflict had led to personal attacks. In 25% of the cases, it had translated to sickness or absence, and in 9% of the cases it had resulted in project failure. People had spent 2.1 hours a week on an average dealing with, but not necessarily resolving, conflict.

Employees in any organization are driven by different personal goals, priorities, preferences, working styles and personalities. So while some degree and form of conflict is inevitable, a serious attempt at resolution is important, given the high costs associated with it.

Any conflict-resolution strategy rests on a meaningful dialogue. And since this doesn’t come easily to most, people tend to circumvent conversations with errant or underperforming subordinates, non-cooperating peers, or irate customers. The term conversations covers any engagement to mitigate or address disagreement, including performance reviews.

While procrastinating or evading the issue is clearly not a strategy for success, and may even be counterproductive, aggressively taking on the situation could also escalate it into something ugly.

Some simple rules can go a long way in taking the sting out of these conversations.

Take the time to cool off

The success of any engagement for addressing a conflict situation hinges upon its ability to address it at two levels—emotional and rational. Conflict spins off negative emotions like fear, embarrassment, anger, anxiety and nervousness. The resulting stress can hijack any endeavour towards effective communication by impeding one’s ability to think straight. There is merit, therefore, in the conventional wisdom of counting to 10 to get a grip on one’s emotions, according to Mumbai-based Arvind N. Agrawal, president, corporate development and human resources, at business group RPG Enterprises.

Agrawal’s advice is to sleep over it, take a walk, talk to an empathetic friend or colleague, listen to music, drink a glass of water or watch television—whatever works for you. But nurse your emotions back to normalcy before taking a stab at initiating a conversation; this will go a long way in eliminating the emotional nip from the message when it is eventually delivered.

Engage with trust

Agrawal says he tries to approach these conversations with the mindset that people mean to do the right thing—in line with the Y motivation theory developed by Douglas McGregor at the US’ MIT Sloan School of Management, which suggests that people inherently act with a positive intent. This approach, in his experience, gives the entire conversation a positive spin and works in its favour.

Saba Adil, Mumbai-based head of human resources at AEGON Religare Life Insurance Co. Ltd, adds that addressing a conflict becomes a lot easier if you eschew an adversarial stance, believe that the other person means well and is working just as hard towards achieving the organizational goal as you.

Do your homework and be objective

Rushing into a conversation without a clear understanding of the context and without adequate preparation in terms of gathering examples, facts and figures is, undoubtedly, a recipe for disaster. Adil says it is important to engage with objectivity, citing critical incidents and examples.

Adopting a non-judgemental approach that focuses on the issue rather than the person is also imperative, to ensure that the person neither slips into denial nor becomes defensive.

Take everyone’s perspective

Mumbai-based Namrata Gill, vice-president, human resources, at utility vehicle and tractor maker Mahindra & Mahindra, says that rather than making assumptions about the intentions of the other person, it’s important to try and understand his/her perspective to avoid further misunderstanding. Also, engaging with honesty in every conversation—be it with the team, client or peer—helps establish information symmetry and common ground that are instrumental in finding a solution.

The best approach, says Adil, is to get the person into a room and express your concern about the situation—not the person—objectively, without pointing a finger or being judgemental. And if a third person is involved, get him into the room and understand his side of things as well. This would, by bringing all the facts to the table, provide a solid ground for a meaningful conversation.

Make it constructive

Agrawal recalls a performance review session for a person who was in the red on most performance parameters. Anticipating a difficult conversation, he decided to use a different approach. Working towards the goal of helping the person emerge from the negative spiral of non-performance, he drew upon a coaching framework instead of commenting on the lack of performance. He gave the conversation a positive spin by asking questions like, “I have read your report. How do you think you have fared?", “What would you like to do?", “Where would you like to be?" and “In what way can I support you?"

The conversation concluded on a constructive note with an action plan agreed upon by both.

Engage with sensitivity

Mumbai-based Pratap G., senior director, human resources, at container shipping firm Maersk, says the tone and tenor determine the effectiveness of the message just as much as the choice of words.

Recalling a redundancy conversation with a senior colleague, he says it was important to understand the emotional upheaval, in terms of self-doubt and loss of self-esteem, that the person was likely to experience. The key lay in engaging with sensitivity, empathy and honesty when handing him the pink slip. He had started the conversation by stating the proposed action honestly, and apologizing for what the person was going through. Further, he explained that this action was in no way a reflection on the person’s lack of ability or competence. Rather, it was an outcome of the organization’s inability to take him forward, in the wake of unexpected extraneous factors, as well as a lack of planning. Just this acknowledgement had rendered the conversation a lot easier for both.

Time it right

Choose the timing of the conversation to ensure that people have had a chance to deal with their emotions, and are in a receptive frame of mind. And budget for enough time, for it would be a shame to jeopardize it by having to cut it short or go through it in a hurry.

Also, a face-to-face conversation is far more effective—it offers the opportunity to observe the body language and understand the subtle message beneath the words, and provides scope for tailoring the conversation on the fly based on the other person’s response.

Charu Sabnavis is a learning and organizational development facilitator and founder director of Delta Learning.

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