I bet there is a difficult conversation on your "to do" list or in the back of your mind that you've been putting off. We all have at least one thing. Some of us have accumulated many more.

If you're like me, you spend most of your time at work in conversation: talking, listening, talking, listening, email, email, text, call, call, call. Even with all of this back and forth, you routinely leave the most important words unsaid. You're afraid to say them. I know I am.

Difficult conversations surround high-stakes issues such as performance and promotions.

Anytime one person's role, status, or relationship can be changed by another, the need for a difficult conversation emerges.

Just the thought of initiating a difficult conversation can prompt me to rearrange my "to do" list to put that item at the bottom. It'll be awkward. I'll probably say the wrong thing. I don't want to upset anyone. Maybe I don't have all the information. Maybe I misunderstood his intent. Maybe the problem will get just better on its own.

Of course, it never gets better on its own. Not addressing negative attitudes, subpar performance, territoriality, judgment, and put-downs at the office is the same as saying it's okay. By not having these conversations, we trade our short-term comfort for the long-term health of our teams and businesses.

I recently had the opportunity to speak to Jose Morales, of Saviesa Solutions. Jose is an executive coach and leadership development expert. He offered his invaluable advice on how to approach these difficult conversations. Here are a couple of his tips:

  • Know your purpose and desired outcomes. "Before any difficult conversation, you need to ask yourself a couple important questions: What is my purpose in having this conversation? What is the ideal outcome?" Before going any further, make sure you can proceed with a positive, supportive mindset.
  • Know your assumptions. Ask yourself what you're assuming about the other person's intentions. (In my experience, most of the time we're wrong about other people's intentions. We assume someone set out to hurt or offend us when, in fact, they weren't thinking of the impact on us at all.)

This little bit of reflection in advance will help prepare you to clearly articulate the issue from your perspective and to listen with a more open mind.

To start the process, schedule the conversation when any initial anger and frustration has subsided and you're feeling calm.

  1. Start with a question and a sincere interest in learning about the issue from the other person's perspective. Approaching the conversation as if you don't know anything helps you be open to receiving new information. Avoid interrupting or getting defensive as they talk.
  2. Acknowledge that you heard them. Repeating back key statements can help ensure you clearly understand what they've said and gives them a chance to correct anything they misstated.
  3. Share your perspective. Only after you've thoroughly heard their "side," be prepared to share your view of what happened and how it impacted you.
  4. Solve the problem together. Once you feel you each have a clear understanding of the past, you're ready to shift gears and focus on the future. Brainstorm what might work to resolve the problem. Try to avoid completely rejecting any of their positive suggestions and instead build on them to create a solution you think will work.

So, we know why we do it, but do we fully acknowledge the cost of putting off difficult conversations? It's huge. Issue avoidance among people at work is the seed of every organizational challenge. Not addressing issues when they arise is always the cause of long-term angst, disengagement, disappointment, and more.

We can think of the extreme cases of harassment and bullying in the office. But the much more common problem is avoiding talking about the more subtle slights. After all, people try to remain professional, even when they've been offended. They've been coached not to take it personally or get defensive. So, they try to adapt, get over it, and move on. But leaving these issues unaddressed -- or worse, having ineffectual conversations about them -- isn't going to make them go away. They linger and continue to show up as distrust, apathy, and lack of optimism.

Avoiding minor issues has a huge impact. It holds you back from reaching your potential. So mastering a process for having productive, difficult conversations unlocks that power and potential.