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Career Advice

Tackling Scary Workplace Conversations

Posted by Glassdoor Team

Career Advice Experts

October 25, 2010

What's scarier than a sexy Halloween costume contest at work? How about the conference room conversation with a boss or a peer to address stupid behaviors or a major mistake on the job?

"Most people think it takes courage," said Kerry Patterson, co-author of the books Crucial Conversations and Crucial Confrontations. What it really takes is skills to have a healthy conversation with a positive outcome.

One third of us have postponed these scary conversations for at least a month, and one-fourth of us have delayed for a year or longer, according to a poll last year of 970 people for VitalSmarts, the consulting and training company Patterson and his co-authors run. The scariest discussions address bad behavior or incompetence and obnoxious or illegal behaviors.

So here are six steps for scary chats, from Patterson and his books:

  1. Talk face-to-face and in private. Don't revert to phone or email and don't back out.
  2. Assume the best of others. Perhaps the coworker doesn't know how annoying their behavior is. Maybe the boss has been burned before.
  3. Share facts not conclusions. By staying away from your beliefs and perspective you may avoid some defensiveness.
  4. Use tentative language. Say something like "This is what I have observed." Or "I'm starting to wonder whether…."
  5. Ask for their view. Find out how they see the problem.
  6. Use equal treatment. Everyone needs to feel like they're a "reasonable, rational person who deserves your respect."

When you're talking to your boss, it's "doubly important" to follow these guidelines; be professional and avoid loaded labels like micromanaged or difficult, Patterson said. The stakes are much higher - and the relationship and your income need to be preserved.

Ask for more information in a neutral context. Think of yourself as a detective trying to solve a case, Patterson said.  "Be curious rather than angry."

So take off that mask of fear and put on your detective’s hat to turn a scary conversation into a healthy discussion.

For more on these scary conversations and managing the emotions that come up before, during and after them, see my blog post on