From firing an employee to the latest office email chain about the current state of American politics, you will inevitably encounter difficult topics, and even conflicts, in the workplace. However, you can easily maneuver these difficult discussions without causing any office drama. Here are a few tips for managing those difficult interactions so that effective workplace communication can continue throughout the workday.
- First, stick to the facts and leave your emotions at home.
Leave beliefs and emotions out of it. Besides being unprofessionally and a tad bit tacky, emotional reactivity in workplace interactions can skew your perception of the situation. If responding to an email, heed the advice of Patricia O’Conner from her book Woe Is I: The Grammarphobe’s Guide to Better English in Plain English and give yourself a moment of pause to cool off before pressing Send.
- Say what you mean and mean what you say.
Don’t sugar-coat your intended message. Doing this will ultimately sacrifice clarity, meaning, and intention, and at the root of most miscommunications is unclear, poorly expressed ideas. So, though it is always important to well-articulate when you communicate in the workplace, it is downright imperative to articulate your message well in situations of potential communication breakdown. Thus, when difficult topics arise in the workplace, be certain to rhetorically strategize before engaging in the conversation by:
- contemplating the purpose of your message,
- considering the audience of your message,
- choosing an amenable tone that will be well-received with word-choice that concisely expresses your message without unnecessary verbiage, and
- contemplating the limitations of your chosen delivery method (such as losing tone and inflections through email and text, lacking time for contemplation before speaking in face-to-face discussions, etc.).
For more information about rhetorical situations, check out this detailed explanation from Norton Field Guide.
Following this advice will help save you from unnecessary, and sometimes angry and polarizing, miscommunications in the workplace. It’s much easier and less stressful to take the few minutes before engaging in difficult conversations at work than it is to speak reactively in the moment about difficult topics and sacrifice clarity, meaning, and intention.
- Keep in mind that people are not their beliefs and ideologies.
Along with the advent of social media and instantaneous connectivity to one another, we have become conditioned to think of one another during disagreements as opponents and adversaries needing to be defeated rather than as our family, friends, and colleagues who simply have had different life experiences than us and, consequently, have different perspectives than us. In recent times, people tend to passionately debate their beliefs and ideologies as if they are facts, verified through empirical testing with non-negotiable test results. Because of this, it is best to completely avoid discussing any non-objective topics in the workplace, but when the topic is unavoidable, keep your wits about you and don’t forget that these are your coworkers and not the beliefs and ideologies with which you disagree.
- Finally (but first and foremost), refuse to engage in unnecessary debates.
The best and most efficient way to clearly and effectively communicate in difficult, controversial conversations in the workplace is to simply refuse to engage and interact in conversations with tense, potentially volatile subject matter. Leave those discussions at home for in your spare time. Though you may need to discuss such topics for a project at work or it may be completely unavoidable for whatever reason, you and your colleagues can cooperatively set the tone for productive conversations by setting boundaries and ground rules for such discussions at work, especially for collaborative projects.
To recap, to achieve effective communication in workplace debates, refrain from allowing emotions to sway your argument or message, practice concision and precision using rhetorical situation analysis, humanize those people who disagree and debate with you, but most importantly, avoid unnecessary workplace debates.
To learn more about how to disagree productively, listen to Julia Dhar’s enlightening discussion Ted Talk entitled “How to Disagree Productively and Find Common Ground” about the fundamentals of productive debate skills.