Don’t take it personally
If you’re about to have a tough conversation at work, remember that when you’re discussing business, it’s not a judgment on you as a human being. Knowing that can help you have an easier, more productive discussion. “In my years of advising C-level executives, I observed that they don't take anything personally,” Nolley Tillman says. “They don't take it personally when they're challenged or when things don't go their way. For many of us, we have an emotional response to something that's supposed to be just business. But in corporate situations, we are not saving lives. If the memo goes out with a misspelling in it, it’s not the end of the world, but because of how we're wired for success, it feels like it for most of us."
Reframe difficult conversations
Because CEO types are typically comfortable in their identities, they don't shy away from what Nolley Tillman used to call 'difficult conversations.’ "I realized after years of observing CEOs at thriving companies that their success came from their ability to have those conversations, so I started thinking of those conversations as necessary, not difficult,” she explains. Even if you’re not a CEO, calling a tough conversation (like asking for a raise) a necessary conversation versus a difficult one can change how you approach it. “Humans do phenomenal things when it's necessary to do them,” Nolley Tillman adds. “Your words have the power to change your emotions."
Don’t ignore your emotions
It’s hard to have a tough conversation at work because, frankly, even if we know not to take something personally, emotions tend to rise up. "You're entitled to your emotions, but process them privately, process them outside of the business context,” says Tillman. “One of the ways to do that is to simply go into a talk with an agenda. You're not going to give power to what the other person says, you’re going to focus on that agenda and message you want to convey.” This could be an agenda in your head, just taking a few minutes pre-meeting to think through your goals, or it could be a printed sheet with the bullet points you need to hit. Whatever works best for you.
Do your homework
Prepare for your next necessary conversation by having a clear plan. “Writing it down and having that plan going in reduces the fear and minimizes the emotion,” says Nolley Tillman. She starts with three key questions, which should be answered in order:
- What do I want to achieve?
- What do I want the person who I'm meeting with to know or consider?
- What are the points that I need to make?
Consider the context of the conversation
Tough but necessary conversations about mistakes you made or mistakes an employee or boss made can be difficult. There’s a reason many people talk about the ‘crap sandwich’ analogy for offering feedback. (If you’ve never heard of it, it’s where you offer a compliment, then the criticism, then another compliment before concluding.) Whether you use this technique or not depends on the situation. “If you’re trying to explain a mistake to your very busy boss, for example, she may not want to bother with the pleasantries and compliments, and would prefer you just present the problem and your solution quickly,” says Nolley Tillman. But if you’re talking to a new and nervous employee, you may want to offer those compliments to protect the relationship and help the employee feel less upset. For each conversation, consider the person you’re speaking to and decide on your approach before the meeting.
If you do get emotional, move through it
When we try to rein in our emotions, or start apologizing for our teary eyes or tight voice, we’re only making matters worse. “Don't apologize for feeling how you feel,” says Nolley Tillman. "You don't have to do that. Instead, take a breath, take a moment, excuse yourself if you need to, and then come back and power through the conversation. The person with you in that meeting is going to say, 'Oh, wow, Liz powered through that conversation like a champ, even though it was hard for her.’ But if you let the tears and the emotions take the stage, you can derail the entire conversation. It’s okay to be yourself: Too often, women, especially women of color, are told they need to dial it down in the workplace. And you do want to be yourself. But at the same time, you want to make sure that you're staying on track and executing your agenda.”
Be smart about confrontations
While maintaining a level head during a difficult conversation is ideal in the workplace, if you know the person you’re having a necessary conversation with is likely to get emotional in a negative way, it is important to protect yourself. Bring a friend or colleague, ask for an HR rep to be present, insist on the door staying open, or let the person know you’re recording the conversation if you don’t feel safe. “A few years ago, I had a meeting to deliver bad news to a client who I knew had the tendency to get upset in conversations. I was afraid of him, to be honest,” Nolley Tillman recalls. “So when I went to that meeting, I took another woman from HR in with me, because I was afraid to go meet with him myself. I wanted a witness in the room. I made my points, but he was yelling and screaming the entire time. Eventually, I just closed my notebook and said, ‘Thank you so much for your time, I realize that you are not committed to having a productive conversation around this issue. I will take this back to my boss.’ I got up, and I walked out. The HR rep was absolutely shocked. Unsurprisingly, the man was fired shortly after that. But it’s important for us to be comfortable advocating for ourselves when we’re concerned a situation isn’t safe — while ensuring that our voice is heard.”