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3 dozen ways to handle difficult discussions

Clear communication is vital in any office, particularly in a medical practice, where there is a climate of power differential and hierarchy. However, many employees aren’t particularly good at communicating, according to Dr. Susan Strauss, a nationally-recognized expert, author and international speaker on discrimination, harassment and bullying in the workplace.

“Communication happens whether we want it to or not. Even if you are just sitting and not speaking, you are still communicating,” says the Minnesota-based founder of Strauss Consulting.

Communication occurs when one person notices another person’s behavior and assigns meaning to that behavior, based upon one’s own beliefs and values.

Strauss says the goals of communication include getting others to agree with what we are saying; to get others to like us or to show we like them; to understand; and to tell.

A person’s life experience, level of education and roles and responsibilities also play into the communication equation, as does one’s self-concept, for weaker or stronger.

“All of this, whether conscious or not, is going to make a difference in how you send your communication and how you receive it,” she says.

Only about seven percent of communication is verbal, while the rest is non-verbal. Verbal communication includes the words we use, the words we accent; pauses between words; our tone of voice; and noises such as aahhh, ooohh and hmm.

Non-verbal communication can still be vocal, such as if someone scoffs when someone else is speaking. It also includes body language, fidgeting, touch; physical proximity to one another (space) and time (when the message is delivered).

Listening is also a huge part of communication, yet according to Strauss, people almost immediately forget half of what is said to them, if they are listening at all.

“Most people do not listen with the intent to understand. They listen with the intent to reply,” says Strauss, adding that if one worker disagrees with what another is saying, he or she often becomes argumentative, instead of trying to understand the other person’s viewpoint and looking for areas of common ground in working toward resolving a problem.

Communication can be passive, aggressive, passive-aggressive (such as gossiping behind someone’s back or trying to sabotage a co-worker) or assertive.

“When we are being aggressive, it’s looking out for our needs. When we are being passive, it’s looking out for others’ needs. Being assertive is balancing these two,” she says.

If you are wanting to engage in some risky communications with a co-worker, Strauss says you need to do some homework first, including thinking about what you want to achieve from a discussion with a colleague or an attorney; what is the least you can accept as an outcome; problems that may arise during the exchange and how you’ll handle them; and how you’ll conclude the communication exchange.

Planning for a conversation allows you to not be having it for the first time, says Strauss, adding that your brain can’t tell the difference between whether the conversation has been imagined or it is actually taking place.

Holding a “dress rehearsal” for the conversation in your head and even running it by a friend or family member beforehand, allows you to stay calmer during the actual conversation and can lead to a better outcome, according to Strauss.

36 ways to handle difficult discussions

So how can you be assertive when a conflict arises and you need to air it? Here are some tips from Strauss:

  1. Be direct.
  2. Think things through before speaking.
  3. Confront problems immediately. Say “no” as soon as possible.
  4. Whenever possible, hold the discussion on your own turf.
  5. Practice what you’ll say beforehand.
  6. Be willing to risk rejection.
  7. Be honest with the other person.
  8. Use non-verbal cues. Match your expressions to your words. Make eye contact with the other person.
  9. Avoid empty threats.
  10. Be brief and to the point.
  11. Be specific.
  12. Deal only with present problems, not past ones.
  13. Don’t apologize for asserting yourself.
  14. Speak clearly and loudly enough to be heard, but don’t shout.
  15. Don’t make up reasons for having done or said something.
  16. Use assertive words or phrases, such as “let’s work it out.”
  17. Avoid using words such as kind of, sort of, I guess, you know, or maybe.
  18. If you disagree with someone’s behavior, say no without excuse.
  19. Use “I” statements, not “you” statements. For example, say, “I felt belittled when” instead of, “You belittled me when you…”
  20. Be firm.
  21. Show respect for the other person.
  22. Don’t be sarcastic, whiny or pleading.
  23. Do not blame the other person for your feelings.
  24. If someone asks you to do something that you don’t want to accept, don’t say ‘I can’t.” Say “I won’t.”
  25. Extend and demand courtesy.
  26. Assume equality. Don’t allow yourself to become intimidated.
  27. Express appreciation.
  28. If someone makes an insulting comment, ask them to explain why they said it.
  29. When someone goes too far, confront the offender and ask for an apology.
  30. Make positive statements.
  31. Address the behavior, not the person.
  32. Avoid nervous laughter, jokes and gestures.
  33. Relax!
  34. Communicate what you believe and feel. Don’t be accusatory.
  35. Whenever you gain a major concession from the other person, express your appreciation.
  36. Be clear about your goals.

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