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Delivering Difficult Conversations in the Workplace

Updated: Oct 16, 2022

By Robyn Short, President & CEO, Workplace Peace Institute

Reimagining organizations by devising an innovative model that encourages productive, fulfilled, and engaged employees.

Asking for a pay increase. Providing critical feedback on performance. Addressing inappropriate behavior. Apologizing. These are examples of hard-to-have, but necessary, workplace conversations.

Difficult conversations must be had in order to create and sustain a healthy, peaceful, and well-functioning workplace system. Too often, difficult conversations are avoided or poorly delivered due to a lack of skill, and as a result, a lack of confidence to handle them with courage and grace. And yet the ability to deliver a difficult conversation is paramount to maintaining peace in the workplace.

Peace in the workplace exists when individuals experience security, dignity, and a working environment that is free of fear.

In their book, Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most, authors Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton, and Sheila Heen define a difficult conversation as “anything you find hard to talk about.” Some people may find taking accountability easy while others experience intense fear about the potential of experiencing anything that could be perceived as blame. Some people have high emotional intelligence, while others rarely, if ever, think to consider someone else’s feelings. Some people believe direct, to-the-point communication is the best way to get in and out of a tough conversation while others may speak in nuance and use hedging tactics to try to convey topics they find hard to talk about. The point is, we all approach difficult conversations differently, and some of us never approach them at all.

Difficult conversations are opportunities for learning. Every difficult conversation involves three elements: each person’s perspective of the facts, the way each person feels in response to their own perspective, and how their perspective and feelings impact their identity (Stone et al., 2010). All too often, we choose to get stuck in our individual perspectives of the facts. We get rooted in the “what happened” element of a conversation, which can quickly lead to impasse. Emotions can intensify and the ability to trust the other person can deteriorate. Learning to navigate difficult conversations is an essential element of leadership and a necessary aspect of cultivating peace in the workplace.

Engaging in difficult conversations and managing tough topics constructively strengthens workplace relationships, improves trust, optimizes employee engagement, and, ultimately, enhances workplace performance. When people are able to trust that they can have hard conversations without experiencing assaults on their dignity, all while maintaining their sense of safety and security in the workplace, they are able to approach conflict collaboratively and work toward joint problem-solving.

Participating in difficult conversations training – and ensuring your employees have access to that same training – is critical to creating and sustaining a well-functioning workplace environment.


Dr. Robyn Short is the president and CEO of Workplace Peace Institute – an organizational systems design and research firm that is singularly focused on creating workplace cultures where people thrive. Workplace Peace Institute supports small to mid-sized businesses in optimizing employee engagement, maximizing organizational productivity, and improving profitability by infusing human security and dignity as foundational attributes of their business model.


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