Difficult Conversations at Work

Tips for Having Difficult Conversations in the Workplace

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

We often enter into a war of words in a battle for the truth. Each of us is trying to convince the other of how wrong they are and how right we are. The art of peace is never easy in times of war, but never more needed. My hope is that these suggestions will help us when we view someone else as a “threat” because they differ from how we see and experience the world. 

1. Staying in the Room to Work Things Out 

This is not always easy, especially if we morally, spiritually, politically, or religiously disagree with someone. Also, we might emotionally leave, even if we’re still physically in the room. So, the real the commitment here is our willingness to remain emotionally and physically present and open to working things out. 

2. Remaining Curious 

It is often convenient to stop listening when our truth is in competition with someone else's. The hard part is being curious about what they mean and how their experiences have affected who they are today. This requires being sincerely curious about the social and personal contexts of someone's life journey and how those experiences shaped their life choices and perceptions. 

3. Taking No Prisoners 

There is a Buddhist saying: "To have no enemies, is to take no prisoners." I think that what is implied here is to notice how withholding part of the truth will hold another hostage, thus creating resentment, bitterness, and distrust. It's not easy, but it’s necessary.  

4. Self-Reflection 


Being in a relationship affords you the opportunity (if you're willing to take it) to see who you are in the eyes of another. We seldom get to hear, let alone truly see, what we look like to others when we're angry, frustrated, irritated, in love, in despair, or feeling hopeless or lost. That is why reflecting on our actions and being open to hearing how others experience us is so critical to our growth and understanding of ourselves and our impact on others. As Anais Nin once wrote: "We do not see the world as it is, but rather who we are." 

5. Owning Our Part 

We need to examine whether we are headed in the right direction and if we are harming others by our actions or inactions. Perhaps one of the reasons we have such a hard time apologizing and taking responsibility is because we seldom witness that quality in our leaders or from our institutions. 

6. A Willingness to Transform and Change 

Often, change is viewed as a loss of something, rather than as an opportunity to enhance and enrich our lives. To create trust and community, we must be willing to change our goals, ourselves, our communities, and our institutions when the need arises. Change is a healthy and necessary part of nature and science and in all relationships. As Amelia Earhart once shared: "The most difficult decision is just to act. The rest is just tenacity."

For those of you who need to begin the difficult conversation about diversity & inclusion, join me at the ATD 2017 Conference & Exposition for the session: Diversity Conversations in the Workplace.

Editor’s Note: This blog post is adapted from “The Art of Peace in Times of War.

About the Author
Lee Mun Wah is a Chinese American documentary filmmaker, author, educator, community therapist and diversity trainer. For more than 25 years he was a resource specialist and counselor in the San Francisco Unified School District. Lee Mun Wah is now the executive director of Stirfry Seminars & Consulting, a diversity training company that provides educational tools and workshops on issues pertaining to cross-cultural communication and awareness, mindful facilitation, and conflict mediation techniques. Thousands of people from government and social service agencies, corporations and educational institutions have taken Lee Mun Wah’s workshops. His most famous film about racism, The Color of Fear, won the Gold Medal for Best Social Studies Documentary. In 1995, Oprah Winfrey did a one-hour special on him. His book, Let’s Get Real about Racism, and film, If These Halls Could Talk, dealing with college students and their perspectives on racism, were most recently released.
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