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Delivering Difficult Conversations in the Workplace

By Dr. Robyn Short, CEO of Workplace Peace Institute

Asking for a pay increase. Providing critical feedback on performance. Addressing inappropriate behavior. Apologizing. These are examples of hard-to-have, but necessary, workplace conversations.

Difficult conversations must be had in order to create and sustain a healthy, peaceful, and well-functioning workplace system. Too often, difficult conversations are avoided or poorly delivered due to a lack of skill, and, therefore, confidence to handle them with courage and grace. And yet, the ability to deliver a difficult conversation is paramount to maintaining peace in the workplace.

Peace in the workplace exists when individuals experience security, dignity, and a working environment that is free of fear.

In their book, Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most the authors define a difficult conversation as “anything you find hard to talk about.” Some people may find taking accountability easy while others experience intense fear about the potential of experiencing anything that could be perceived as blame. Some people care deeply about the feelings of their coworkers, while others rarely, if ever, think to consider someone else’s feelings. Some people believe direct, to-the-point communication is the best way to get in and out of a tough conversation while others may speak in nuance and use hedging tactics to try to convey a topic they find hard to talk about. The point is, we all approach difficult conversations differently, and some of us never approach them at all.

Every difficult conversation involves three elements — each person’s perspective of the facts, the way each person feels in response to their own perspective, and how their perspective and feelings impact their identity. All too often, we choose to get stuck in our individual perspectives of the facts. We get rooted in the “what happened” element of a conversation, which can quickly lead to impasse. Emotions can intensify and the ability to trust the other person can deteriorate. Learning to navigate difficult conversations is an essential element of leadership and a necessary aspect of cultivating peace in the workplace.

Engaging in difficult conversations and managing tough topics constructively strengthens workplace relationships, improves trust, optimizes employee engagement, and, ultimately, enhances workplace performance. When people are able to trust that they can have hard conversations without experiencing assaults on their dignity and while maintaining their sense of safety and security in the workplace, they are able to approach conflict collaboratively and work toward joint problem-solving.

Participating in difficult conversations training – and ensuring your employees have access to that same training – is critical to creating and sustaining a well-functioning workplace environment.


An international speaker, peace-building trainer and mediator with expertise in restorative justice and transformative mediation models, Dr. Robyn Short works with individuals, corporations, and nonprofit organizations in discovering the root causes of their conflicts, so they may transform their relationships and create new and productive paths forward individually and as teams. In addition to her mediation and conflict training practice through Workplace Peace Institute, Dr. Short is an adjunct professor at Southern Methodist University in the Master of Conflict Management and Dispute Resolution program, the Master of Leadership and Negotiation at Bay Path University, and Lipscomb University's Master in Conflict Management and Dispute Resolution. She has guest lectured at Pepperdine University and Creighton University. Dr. Short has authored four books on peace building.


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