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Practice Management > Building Your Business

3 tips for handling tough workplace conversations

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The right language and communications skills are an absolute must for negotiating today’s workplaces.

According to authors Stephen M. Pollan and Mark Levine, recent cultural, economic and political developments have impacted our business relationships; most notably the way the business world communicates.

As the result of events such as the Great Recession, Pollan writes in “Work Scripts: Perfect Phrases for High-Stakes Conversations” (John Wiley & Sons Inc.), “The way we say things in the workplace must be different now. That’s because how we all think and feel about our jobs, our careers, our employers, our peers, and our employees has changed.”

What are some of the hallmarks of contemporary workplace communications? These authors suggest the following behaviors have become the norm:

    • Fewer face-to-face conversations.
    • Increased emphasis on short-term results.
    • Employees are inherently suspicious of management.
    • Most everyone’s professional path is less certain and predetermined than in years past.

Pollan and Levine assert that the best way to manage today’s workplace uncertainties is to master a series of scripts that you can have at-the-ready for tackling tough situations.

Here are three of their tips for talking through difficult professional transitions, or what the authors refer to as “workplace bombshells.”


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Professionalism now outweighs personal rapport in the workplace.

Pollan and Levine write: “The workplace is a much tenser place than ever before.” (Photo: iStock)

No. 1: Professionalism now outweighs personal rapport

These language experts suggest that carousing and conviviality among colleagues played a much bigger role in the business world of yesteryear than it does today. With staffing, policies, products and procedures almost constantly in flux, today the best “hard talks” make use of straightforward, bottom-line language over personal affinity.


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Spin is dead in today's workplace.

Today, few people are interested in a positive spin on negative or questionable news. (Photo: iStock)

No. 2: Spin is dead

Two or three decades ago, people the world over, including businessmen and businesswomen, were apt to follow the advice of Mary Poppins and deliver tough news alongside “a spoonful of sugar.”

Now, attempting to tap dance through a tough talk by painting a rosy picture on otherwise dour circumstances is likely to backfire in the workplace, according to Pollan and Levine. They suggest that in today’s workplaces, spin is likely to make people more uncomfortable and less engaged. “The best approaches today are simply to be honest and polite,” they write in “Work Scripts.”

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Group discussions may be easier to navigate than one-on-one conversations.

Employees tend to be less stressed in a group setting. (Photo: iStock)

No. 3: Group discussions may be easier to navigate than one-on-one conversations

Now that face-to-face conversations are rarer, managers and businesspeople who insist on them are likely to bump up against the skepticism that’s washed over the modern workplace, according to Pollan and Levine. Requesting a one-on-one may actually induce fear and anxiety rather than put a client, colleague or employee at ease. “The best way to handle many transition conversations today,” they write, “is to hold them in a group setting.”


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