5 Tough Talks To Transform Work

Respect different dissent, accept conflict opinion for work collaborate, professional work discussion concept, businessman and woman fighting or arguing on work with sign of respectful handshaking.
There are five challenging conversations everyone has at work, according to workplace expert Nicole Bianchi. Knowing how to approach each one—and come out stronger—can save you and your team significant stress.

Whether it’s tackling a project with that coworker who has always rubbed you the wrong way or sitting down with an employee who hasn’t been hitting the mark lately, everyone has experienced the dread that comes in anticipation of a tough conversation at work. No matter the scale, these interactions can make you want to bury your head in the sand. But you don’t need to fly blind or wait until tension is critically high to get on the right path.

Nicole Bianchi, author of Five Tough Talks: How To Lead Brave Conversations for Exceptional Results, joined us for the first event in our Women in Leadership Series to share her tips for navigating workplace conflict (our next online discussion, Overcoming Imposter Syndrome, is June 20). For a litany of reasons, from undue repercussions to internalized messaging to be peaceable, women in particular can feel incredible stress surrounding conflict at work. “The truth is, we’ve been taught not to be brave. We’ve been taught to conform, to give in, just to play it safe,” says Bianchi.

Her solution? Tackle these five tough talks, from the introductory to the truly challenging.

How We Work

The How We Work conversation is foundational—an opportunity to intentionally get into a cohesive rhythm with your team. “We get so focused as leaders on what are our goals, what are our tasks, what are our objectives…That’s the ‘what’ of the work that we need to do, that we forget about the ‘how.’ How are we supposed to come together? What do you need from me? What do I need from you? So that we show up as our very best selves,” says Bianchi.

While this talk could be a jumping off point for a new project or team, “It is never too late to have a How We Work conversation,” according to Bianchi. “You could have been leading this team for three years, and you can go back to this.”

Here are a few questions that can get the team thinking in this framework:

“What’s important to you in building relationships?”

“How do you prefer to be challenged or given feedback?”

“What do you need from me to be successful? Here’s what I need…”

The Ask

The next talk is exactly what it sounds like—asking for help, permission or acknowledgment from someone else. Whether it’s a specific request or some steering advice, it can be tricky to admit your needs, so much so that many of us wait until it’s almost too late. In the face of these fears, Bianchi advises to follow the BRAVE framework:  

Background Information: Provide context for the situation.

Research-Based Case: Present the facts.

Advocate and Make the Ask: One sentence, five to seven words.

Voice is Quiet, Trust the Silence: Wait for a response.

End With Action: Don’t leave without alignment on next steps.

“Bravery is an acquired behavior, and it takes practice,” says Bianchi. “And what I do know is if we can increase our frequency in having [brave conversations], we can increase our confidence. And when we increase our confidence, it ends up increasing our results.”

What’s Going On

When you notice a shift in a team member’s behavior or performance—maybe they have a perpetually unfinished task or seem especially frustrated—it may be time to have a What’s Going On conversation.

The three easy steps to follow according to Bianchi:

  1. Build Understanding. Share your observations about the shift.
  2. Build Alignment. Both parties acknowledge the situation, listen and explore individual desired outcomes.
  3. Build Action. Establish the next move.

“It’s important for us to…think about it as having a coaching stance. Come at it very curious. And most times, your presence is the intervention that is needed,” says Bianchi. “At the heart of really good coaching is asking questions and just listening. That’s all you need to do and not source what the action is.”

Being Better

If a pattern of unacceptable behavior continues, directly impacting the success of the team or company, the Being Better talk can confront the issue, behavior or performance that has the employee not working at their best. It has to come from “a place of caring, a place of transparency and a place of…want[ing] the relationship to be better, want[ing] the work to be better,” according to Bianchi.  “When we source it from that, we end up getting much more powerful results.”

Some conversation starters she suggests:

“You aren’t at your best right now. I need to share a pattern I am beginning to see emerge.”

“I care about you. I need __ change for you to be successful.”

“Things aren’t going well for you right now. We need to discuss how to get it back on track.”

Moving On

Perhaps the most challenging, the Moving On talk—to acknowledge this isn’t working and determining a path forward—isn’t fun for anyone involved, but it is an inevitable part of working relationships. Especially if you have had the four other talks and found no way to move forward meaningfully or successfully, parting ways can be the best option for all involved.

Here’s some jumping off points Bianchi suggests when starting the Moving On talk with a team member, or a tricky situation:

“My intent is to be candid with you. It is time for us to move on. Let’s discuss next steps.”

“We have worked to align on next steps, and I had hoped it wouldn’t come to this…”

“I need to share something with you that is uncomfortable for me to say and will be uncomfortable for you to hear.”

Bianchi’s strategy that also makes the Moving On talk easier? Lean on the first three tough talks as a resource and a diagnostic with your team. “If you approach it right, from that spirit and intent of building a strong relationship, you’re just investing in the relationship,” she says. “When it does come time for those tougher ones, they’re not nearly as hard because it becomes just the way we talk. It’s brave conversation after brave conversation after brave conversation.”

At the heart of it all, Bianchi asserts it is crucial to not underestimate the power a simple conversation with your team can have. “Managers and leaders having one meaningful conversation per week with each team member develops high performing relationships more than any other leadership activity,” she says. “Think about that—one, meaningful conversation per team member, more than any other leadership activity. It’s just that simple.”

Get the StrategicCHRO360 Briefing

Sign up today to get weekly access to the latest issues affecting CHROs in every industry