Updated: Mar 8
How to set the right tone for difficult conversations.
In our RealPlay scenarios, participants often start their conversations with a variant of:
“I just want to have a chat.”
“Can I just have a quick chat with you Mike about coming late to the office…”
“Do you mind if we just have a quick chat about...”
You might think, so what? Is there a problem here?
For now, let’s focus on the word ‘chat’ (we’ll worry about ‘just’ in another post).
We understand the temptation to frame difficult conversations so that they appear friendly and informal. We often try to minimise or deflect potential conflict by using a friendly introduction. Ultimately, by starting with ‘let’s have a chat’ you’re setting up a false expectation that the conversation isn’t serious.
Chat is disposable. It’s something that happens over a coffee, between friends. It’s not a formal meeting about workplace performance, not the right introduction when seeking a behavioural change, and not useful for any difficult conversation in a professional context.
When a supposedly relaxed tete-a-tete turns into something far more significant, the recipient might be caught off guard or unprepared to deal with feedback. ‘Let’s just have a chat’ is often impromptu, instigated by a spur of the moment encounter in the hallway, or a colleague popping their head around the cubicle wall.
Starting difficult conversations can be intimidating, but so is being on the receiving end of one. It’s important to give the other person a fair warning, so they can be in the right headspace for the conversation.
Next time you need to talk about something difficult in the workplace, replace the word ‘chat’ with ‘conversation’ or ‘discussion.’ Signal to the recipient that the issue is serious, by using formal language. Schedule the meeting ahead of time, and be specific about what you want to cover so they know what to expect.
“I want to have a discussion with you about your performance. When is a good time for you to meet?”
Leave the ‘chats’ for the break room. Difficult conversations need to be taken seriously from the get go.