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The 4 Best Ways to Navigate Tricky Office Conversations

Office Conversations

Lunch hour small talk turned into a heated debate on Trump vs. Hillary and the tension only escalated from there. Then, you hit “reply all” instead of privately forwarding your less-than-professional reaction to an office buddy. Talk about a pickle.

Would it just be easier to avoid addressing awkward comments? Yes. Will that lead to resentment and unhappiness at the office moving forward? Also yes.

John MacDonald of Proactive Solutions states that avoiding difficult conversations does nothing to improve your team’s relations or foster a better culture. Surprise, surprise.

Instead of trying to avoid taboo workplace topics, it’s time you learn how to deal with them in a professional manner. After all, it’s inevitable that you’ll have a difficult conversation with a colleague or co-worker, even if it wasn’t about something scandalous.

But managing the conversation without losing your cool is often easier said than done. Here’s what the experts have to say about dealing with awkward subjects in the office—like a dignified pro.

Control the Emotions

People like to talk—that’s a fact. The gossip train can get pretty backed up and we’re sure you’ve seen your fair share of angry passengers who didn’t ask to board. And as a Ninja, you might be on the receiving end, serving as the sound board or moderator when you’d rather stay out of it altogether.

This situation poses the opportunity to control the speed before the train jumps the tracks. Movie critic Rebecca Causey knows all about delivering cold, hard opinions with authority. She suggests three things:

1. Listen

Pay attention to the truth and feeling behind the words they say. Are they scared? Are they angry?

2. Repeat what they said

Acknowledge what they’re saying by saying it right back. This tactic is surprisingly effective and disarms a great deal of anger. Not only does it make the other person calm down and feel heard, it gives you a bit of time to process before you respond.

3. Speak the truth

Respond with your take on the scenario. Balancing the truth with respect allows for a softer delivery, which is always easier for a person to handle than a harsh blanket statement.

Now, put it all together.

Your co-worker says, “I really can’t stand this new onboarding process, the whole idea is pointless and ineffective!”

You say, “I’m surprised to hear you don’t think this onboarding process works well. While it may take a bit longer to train an employee, I find the new training manuals to be very detailed.”

Using this method, you can layer your thoughts onto a co-workers, even if you’re disagreeing. The overlap between points of view reduce chances of a heated debate, and you can still hash out issues instead of sweeping them under the rug.

Think About the Angles

Some conversations are not as black and white. Our brains are often so cluttered with work-related details that we search for a reprieve in the form of interesting topics—which usually come with lots of perspectives. How you approach these discussions can make or break your success communicating at work.

Take politics for example. If (or, more likely, when) political discussions become unavoidable, you should choose your words carefully. Ninjas are champions of a progressive work environment and rarely shy away from sticky situations, so mold this topic as a discussion instead of an argument. Bear in mind this tactic can work in a variety of tricky areas, including mention of religion, personal beliefs, and in heated exchanges.

Topics rooted in personal values are emotionally charged. So it’s best to check your bias and aim to see the complete picture. That starts with acknowledging information that contradicts your beliefs. The simple awareness of potential confirmation bias could even prevent polarizing statements that are too hard to come back from once said.

The adage “if you can’t say anything nice…” works wonders in this situation. Before blurting it out, ask yourself if something you want to toss in the rink would offend your audience. If the answer is yes, it’s probably best to stay silent until you reach happy hour.

Redirect the Heat

Redirection works when subjects and conversations are heated.

Professor of Leadership at Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management, Brian Uzzi suggests we redirect not only the topic of conversation, but the negative emotions that often follow closely behind.

Situations out of our control are top contenders for making people angry. For example, if your team prepared a 10-minute slide deck and found out they’d only be given half that time to present, phrasing your replies with a redirect statement can change the mood from pure annoyance.

“Yes, it’s frustrating that our allotted time for the presentation was cut in half, but the sponsor cut all company sessions in half to accommodate scheduling conflicts so we’d still have an opportunity to share.”

Another way to redirect emotion is to portray a mutual source of tension in a positive light.

“But because we only need to plan for a shorter presentation, we’ll have time to go see the talk on workplace culture we would’ve missed before!”

When you shift emotional perspectives, it becomes easier for a person to see through their blind rage and think rationally.

Accept the Need to Apologize

Sometimes mistakes are made and feelings are hurt when conversations get out of hand. We’ve all been there, thinking we’re on mute during the conference call, when we so clearly are not. If you’re way past the point of thinking before speaking, or redirecting emotions, an apology is your best bet.

However, a terse apology could only prompt a retort. So take the proper time to remove your foot from your mouth. Then work on a coherent apology that includes what exactly you’re sorry for and why you regret launching verbal warfare.

In a study on apologies of college students, psychologists looked at social cues in a relationship after someone forgave a peer. By measuring the degree of empathy, forgiveness, and reconciliation, the researchers found data supporting the universal hypothesis—an apology leads to empathy and empathy encourages forgiveness.

Developing self-respect and repairing burned bridges comes from the courage to admit that you’re wrong. Apologize by expressing regret, taking responsibility, and offering a suggestion to remedy the situation.

It may be hard, but you’ll thank yourself later. Plus, Ninjas take the high ground.

No matter how progressive, casual, or fun your workplace, there will always be boundaries you shouldn’t cross. Use these methods to navigate taboo topics when they arise and you’re sure to take the trophy for Best Office Communicator.

How do you tackle tough conversations? Let us know your secrets in the comments!


  1. I’m going into a meeting in few minutes for a difficult conversation. I’ve already apologized for the offending behavior, but much like this article states, I need to have a conversation regarding how the offending behavior developed. I’ve had time to think about the issue since the initial notification and have developed a plan for expressing my frustrations and for correcting the offending behavior. I’m planning to use a framework familiar to my supervisor to assist with delving into difficult issues in the conversation.

    1. Wow, Dogon, it sounds like you’ve taken all the right steps! You also made a great point—that the steps taken can be tailored to a person’s company culture or leadership style.

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