Learn the skills needed to build healthier workplace relationships 

Most of our conversations are ineffective. We don’t speak up early and say what we truly think and feel. We don’t listen properly when others tell us how they think and feel. We use politeness when we should be honest. We skirt around sensitive issues; or storm in with accusation and blame when we feel we have been wronged. This somewhat gloomy, yet alarmingly true picture of our conversations should leave you wanting to improve your communication. But how? The good news, the experts say, is that many of our conflicts and issues in the workplace (and beyond) can be resolved by learning the skills needed to hold an effective conversation. Here goes… 


If something is bothering you in your business, whether it be a business partner who doesn’t share your vision, or an employee who is under-performing, the natural tendency is to avoid the difficult conversation for as long as possible. It’s easier to hope that the problem will go away (perhaps by dropping a few subtle hints or using sarcasm or humour) than risk speaking up and having your emotions get the better of you, which would lead to conflict. The crunch is, the problem doesn’t go away. When you delay speaking up, your emotions towards the person build up, as does your frustration and stress. The situation gets worse as the person carries on with their behaviour, unaware of how you are feeling. Typically, one day it all becomes too much and you burst out with anger, blame and accusation. The result of this is that the outburst blows over, until the pattern starts to build again – with problems never being properly resolved and emotional outbursts taking the place of conversation. Perhaps worse is a situation where there is no outbursts, and no emotion, and everything is swept under the carpet. 

It doesn’t have to be this way. Stepping up to difficult, emotionally charged conversations, saying what is on your mind, and managing your emotions is possible – and a good start is planning to have the conversation as soon as the issue becomes pertinent so that there hasn’t been any time or feelings to fester. Of course, there is a degree to which you must pick your battles, and it takes emotional intelligence to work out which ones to let slide. 


Collins says that when it comes to communicating about feelings, it is noticeable how people operate in one or other of two modes. “Most of the time, they do not share their feelings. You never know quite what they’re really thinking, or where you stand with them. You get hints in their non-verbal behaviour and perhaps the odd sarcastic comment. Asking them directly doesn’t help either. They seem unable to locate their feelings or identify them; they certainly struggle to put them into words.” The other mode is the one described earlier – where they lose control completely, either shouting or breaking down in tears. 

Knowing this means that you need to be very careful to make the conversation safe right from the onset. “When you make a conversation safe, you can say almost anything to almost anyone,” says Collins. Here are some practical steps to get off to a safe start: 


When you want to have a difficult conversation with someone, make sure you arrange to do this in private. Book a meeting room and ensure that both parties have enough time to devote to the discussion. There is no bigger distraction that knowing that other people may be overhearing you, or that you have to rush out to another appointment in the next few minutes.

Label it: 

Relieve any apprehension about the subject of the conversation by labelling it when you ask to meet up. You might say: “I see those sales figures are down substantially, let’s meet and chat about it tomorrow.” If it’s a complicated issue that can’t be easily labelled, say something like: “There’s something that’s been nagging at me the last few days, can we chat tomorrow?” While the person might still be apprehensive, your tone can help establish a more relaxed setting. 

Start with a positive: 

When someone is preparing to go on the defensive, they are waiting to hear something negative. Encourage them by starting with a positive – and make sure it’s true. This will also help you to balance your own emotions towards the person by reminding yourself that it’s not all bad. 

Watch your body language: 

Crossed arms and a stiff posture will negate any verbal attempts to get the conversation off to a safe start. Positive body language is an easy way to relax both of you – lean in, smile and watch your own feelings become less hostile. 

Lay the ground rules: 

Setting the parameters for your conversation can be extremely helpful. For example: “Let’s just get all the facts on the table today, and then tomorrow we can meet and try to think of a solution.” 


“The important rule for effective conversations is to identify clearly the specific actions, facts or behaviour that you are concerned about, and then describe them clearly,” explains Collins. She says that often you have to do some homework, collect documents or observe behaviour before you are ready to open a conversation. “Once you have presented the facts, you can then offer your view of the situation. If your facts are sound, you are less likely to encounter disagreement,” she says. 

The danger with statements like: “that wasn’t a very good presentation” or “I’m not happy with the way you make decisions” is that they express an opinion. (Not to mention the fact that the tone is aggressive, which will immediately put the person on the other end on the defensive.) 

It’s also important to use as few words as possible to convey the message of your conversation, while ensuring that what you say can be understood. Some people think that by offering long-winded monologues they are in some way diluting the harshness of the message, but the danger here is that the words are sugar-coated to the point that the person on the receiving end has no idea what you are actually trying to say. 


Too often we are not even aware of the fact that we go into conversations more intent on getting our own way than on hearing the view of the other person. “We play to win, to get our own way, and our own views across. It is an approach that shows little consideration for others, says Collins, laying bare the truth of the human condition. Listening involves giving your full attention to what the other person is saying – you need to discipline yourself against formulating your response before the other person has finished speaking.

Use empathy to acknowledge what they have said and what they are feeling. This means projecting yourself into their shoes and really taking the time to understand where they are at. 


If you’re going to effect lasting change in a situation or someone’s behaviour, you need commitment from both sides. Commitment rests on involvement – if someone feels that they have contributed to a solution or decision they will be more likely to stick to it. So now’s the time to really share the air space – ask for information, ideas and action plans with what, where, when, why and how questions and work together to a negotiated outcome that you both agree to. 


Too often people leave conversations having decided on an outcome; only to find that the issue rears its ugly head very soon thereafter. The solution to this is to summarise what you have agreed and then to set a follow-up date. Make sure you stick to it!. Letting follow-up meetings slide is a sure way to send a message that you are not all that concerned about the issue, and it won’t be long before the situation degenerates. 

By incorporating some of the steps above, you will be well on your way to learning how to communicate with others in ways that help you develop open, satisfying relationships. How empowering is it to know that you can have relationships in which you speak up with what is on your mind, in which your feelings are known and considered and in which you are able to agree on solutions to problems? 


Nicole Canning – Your Business – Volume 15 No 6