ENGAGE to Manage Tough Conversations in the Workplace

Part 2 of 3 articles that will provide tips for Preparing, Engaging and Acting to manage difficult conversations in the workplace.

Difficult conversations make us uneasy. In the workplace, these are critical moments to help a team member improve, gain awareness, or change behavior for the betterment of themselves, the organization, or the team. Despite these important outcomes, we often fail to engage simply because we’re nervous or scared.

The key to confidently engaging in conversation is behaving like an improviser. 

On the improv stage, we are up front about what we’re doing, and we listen and build on the ideas of our teammates. These skills underpin the Engage phase of managing tough conversations.

In preparation, you can examine your intent and gather data and formulate questions. Once those steps are done, you should feel more ready. You have the facts, you’ve created open-ended questions to gain information, and you want to do this with positive intent.

Now it’s time to Engage with another person, and flexibility is key.


Tip #1: Be Up Front and Give Them Options 

Have you ever experienced a manager or team member saying, “I need to talk to you in my office”? It’s awful! You immediately imagine the worst possibilities

Instead, take a more specific, direct approach and say what you need to discuss right away. 

“Hey, there, John. I need to discuss the issue of your being late over the last two weeks.”

The next part of this up-front conversation is giving them some options, by allowing them to choose the time and place, rather than insisting they adhere to your time schedule or your space.

“I’m free this afternoon, if that would work for you, and I know that conference room one is open. I also know that we’re all busy! If you’d like to find a better time and place in the next two days, I’m fine with that.”

With this sort of transparency, the other person can gather themselves, prepare, and choose a time and place where they can be focused and feel safe. That allows you to converse with a person in a better headspace than someone who is taken off-guard and defensive right away.

Tip #2: Be an Improviser—Say “Yes, and…”

Once you have a place and time that is agreeable for both of you, it’s time to realize you may have to be very flexible.

You have questions from your preparation; a sort of script. Yet conversations with another person don’t go according to a script. You may learn things that surprise you, and you also may have to hear things about yourself or your own behavior that are hurtful or concerning. Tough conversations are the times to embrace your inner improviser. 

Improvisers say, “Yes, and…” That means that first, we agree to acknowledge and validate another person’s reality. If your colleague presents information you don’t like, or is counter to your data, rather than being defensive or fighting, try first to validate their opinion. “Yes, I hear what you are saying.”

The “and” is a way to push the conversation further and a bridge to more understanding. 

“Yes, I hear what you are saying. And I would appreciate some more detail about how the issues arose. What more can you share with me?”

“Yes, I see that we thought there were different priorities on the project. And could you help me understand your plan for putting Phase B out to the team first?”

Now you must listen more than you speak.

My company once trained 500 people managers in a global pharmaceutical company on this process. The point of greatest failure, and subsequent learning, was during the engagement phase. 

Conversation leaders wanted to solve the problem themselves. They would glean a little key information from their first open-ended question and zoom straight to trying to solve/tell the other person what to do. That meant they lost critical insight into the how, why, and what of the situation. Once they engaged by listening, then asking another “Yes, and..” question, listening, then asking another question…they discovered incredible outcomes (“Managing Tough Conversations: A 3-Step Process to Positive, Proactive Solutions” by Karen Hough, 2014. Copyright ImprovEdge LLC).

By hearing the other person’s response without preconceived notions, and following it with another “Yes, and…” question, you’ll keep uncovering more important information about details, their feelings and concerns, and ideas for solutions.

A final note: “Yes, and” is not “Yes, but.” 

In the English language, the word, “but,” creates a response in the listener that makes them feel patronized and believe that everything you said before “but” was not truthful. If you say “Yes, that’s a great idea! But we’ll never implement it due to budget,” it makes your colleague feel you were just falsely buttering them up. 

Conversely, “Yes, that’s a great idea! And help me understand how we could make that work with our budget constraints” lets your colleague know you are open to hearing more details about their ideas, and willing to collaborate in the conversation.

By embracing up-front transparency, and collaborating through “Yes, and” with your colleagues, you are engaging in a productive, flexible conversation. That will lead to better information and next steps.

Look for the final installment in this series, Act!

Karen Hough is the founder and CEO of www.ImprovEdge.com, a company that builds adaptable, flexible, improvisational leaders and is in the top 1 percent of U.S. women-owned businesses. She is an Amazon #1 bestselling author, winner of multiple awards, and a Yale grad. For more information, visit: https://www.linkedin.com/in/karenhoughimprov/