Sometimes, it’s hard to know what to say.
In the workplace, as in life, we’re often confronted with difficult people or difficult situations. Sometimes we’re stunned into silence. More often we blow up with a knee-jerk response that we later may regret.
That’s why I really liked some all-purpose suggestions from Amy Cooper Hakim and Muriel Solomon, authors of “Working With Difficult People.” I’m not in the business of reviewing business books, but I am interested in sharing broadly useful tips, and these ideas qualify. Some excerpts from their work:
When a disagreement looms, “Please explain this to me.” Or, if the disagreement won’t die, “While I don’t agree with your conclusion, you certainly have the right to your opinion.”
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When you’re interrupted, “Pardon me, I’m not through. Just give me a few seconds to finish my point.”
When you encounter extreme anger, “I understand you have a problem with that, but I expect to be treated with courtesy.” Or, “Obviously, you’re too upset to discuss this now. I’ll talk to you later.”
When you’re pressured to blab, “I don’t feel totally comfortable talking about that.” Or, “Don’t you think it would be a good idea to hold off until ...?”
When you need to reprimand an employee, “I’m sure you didn’t realize it, but ...” Or, “Perhaps you didn’t understand the consequences …” Or, “Maybe I failed to make myself clear.”
When you need to express anger (obviously a lot depends on the situation), “I felt I was treated badly when I wasn’t informed in advance.” Or, “I was upset when I realized the decision was based on ...” Or, “I have to tell you that I felt offended by that remark.”
When you want to clear up confusion, “Is it true that you said ...?” Or, “It looks like our signals got crossed.” Or, “Perhaps I misunderstood. Are you saying that ...?”
There are, of course, other tactful ways to diffuse blowups. Unfortunately, it’s sometimes easier to nurse wounds or draw battle lines that get in the way of productive and collegial workplaces.
The fact that differences often occur in hierarchical relationships adds to the difficulty of clearing the air. Subordinates fear challenging supervisors. Some supervisors feel like they need to walk on eggshells to avoid harassment or discrimination complaints.
But work relationships thrive on trust. And that means knowing what co-workers, up or down the ladder, really think or mean by their remarks. It serves no one well to fail to respond to hurtful or angry comments. Talking about it with a friend in the break room isn’t the answer.
Yes, it takes courage to confront, but when done with civility and mutual respect, it usually ends up better than exploding or doing nothing.