Difficult Conversations at Work

“Ginny is so unfriendly to me.” “Chad takes all the easy assignments and leaves the hard ones for me.” “Maria keeps talking about me behind my back.”

How do you do handle situations like these? Do you avoid the other person and simmer quietly, or stage an angry confrontation? In Difficult Conversations by Stone, Patton, and Heen of the Harvard Negotiation Project, the authors suggest guidelines for a more constructive approach.


  • Decide whether to address the issue . Many of us are afraid of confrontations. However, if the problem is ongoing, it may persist or worsen if you don’t take action.
  • Accept the discomfort . “Difficult conversations are a normal part of life,” the authors maintain. A little discomfort won’t hurt you.
  • Identify the underlying issues . This step requires a bit of soul-searching. Maybe the problem isn’t just your co-worker’s good-natured ribbing, for example, but your own insecurity about your competence. Although the argument may appear to be about “what happened,” the real issue is usually more about feelings than facts.
  • Adopt a learning stance . Don’t go in with guns blazing, but rather, be curious to better understand the matter. “There’s something that’s been puzzling me…”
  • Don’t assume the other person’s intentions . You may know what your co-worker said or did, but to understand why, you have to ask questions rather than make accusations.
  • Listen . There will be plenty of time to get your feelings off your chest. First, hear the other person out with minimal interruptions.
  • Skip the blame game . Instead, recognize that you may both have contributed to what happened, and own up to your part. “I’m sorry if I wasn’t clear about what I wanted…”
  • Find the “Third Story .” In addition to your side and the other person’s side of the story, imagine how a neutral party (such as a mediator) might view the situation: “It seems we have different preferences for how much time we spend on this project…”
  • Suggest (and invite) solutions . “How can we avoid this problem in the future?”