Yes, you can say that: a guide to tricky workplace conversations

Proven strategies for managing difficult topics at work including confronting that annoying colleague, and asking for a raise.

No matter how much you love your job, there will come a day when you need to have a difficult conversation.

That annoying colleague who just won’t stop talking when you’re trying to concentrate; the team-mate who keeps asking you to do some of their work even though you’re already super busy; the manager who promised you a pay and performance review but never gets around to delivering. These things can occur in even the most vibrant and enlightened workplace culture.

It may be tempting to keep quiet and keep the peace, but that inevitably leads to frustration and resentment. How much more satisfying, and ultimately empowering, to tackle the situation in a clear, concise, and confident way?

ArtsHub asked a few leading recruitment professionals in the creative industries for their advice on managing challenging conversations.

‘Possibly one of the hardest parts of the working world is having these difficult conversations,’ said Harrison Scott, Marketing and Community Manager at Artisan Recruitment.

‘Don’t wait to have the conversation. Make sure you have done your assessment of the situation and understand your own mindset. Ensure you choose the right environment and understand your own value. Then make sure you listen as much as you talk,’ he said.

This means planning ahead to ensure the conversation has the best chance of succeeding. Step back, get a good perspective on the situation, and be clear about the outcome you want.

‘In the creative industries, you as an individual are always growing, learning and developing. If you want to be more assertive it starts with recognising your own value and appreciating how your knowledge helps you make decisions, judgements, and critique. Once you have an understanding of your own value in a situation, you can be justifiably assertive,’ Scott said.

Don’t be afraid of confrontation

Lawrence Akers, Senior Recruitment Consultant at Creative Recruiters, agrees that difficult conversations are a workplace reality, but said a lot of the stress comes from our own mindset.

‘No one likes having difficult conversations, but they will inevitably be something we all need to do at specific points in our careers. The fear of a confrontational experience can often have people choosing to remain silent and resentful over expressing what is on their minds,’ he said. 

‘The best way to handle these conversations is to ask for an opportunity to chat about your concern, to step into that conversation with an outcome in mind, and to ensure that you keep the conversation factual and professional.’

And yes, that definitely means yelling and tipping your chai latte over your annoying colleague is not the best way to go.

‘It is essential to keep your cool and aim to share your side of the concern in a way that the other person can understand,’ said Akers.

Be mature about it

While each situation is a little different, the size of the organisation can have a direct impact on the dynamics between colleagues. A smaller team may be closer and more transparent; a bigger organisation may be rife with back-biting and office politics as everyone vies for recognition and promotion.

‘The bigger the organisation, the more likely you will have that annoying colleague who is too loud, inappropriate, or just outright toxic,’ said Akers.

‘If you take a more mature approach in the first instance, you’re doing the best you can to assist the other person in becoming more office appropriate.’

It’s also important to handle the situation in a mature and thoughtful way if you are the focus of a difficult conversation. Maybe you had no idea that you are the annoying colleague in the office!

Corinna Hartas, Director at Hartas and Craig, noted: ‘It’s always important to be a good listener. Don’t rush into giving an answer, take your time, say you’ll give it some considered thought and get back to them.’

Read: 5 essential skills all arts managers need

In all these situations, it’s important to focus on the issues and not the personalities.

Akers said: ‘As with any area in your life, it is vital to have boundaries in your workplace to ensure that you perform at your best.’ 

Scott advised: ‘If you find yourself losing time or sleep over an annoying colleague, it’s time to take action.

‘Don’t let it linger. First and foremost, make sure you are setting the example with appropriate behaviours. If it does come to a confrontation, be clear and respectful. Always treat the situation as the workplace not the playground,’ he said.

While it’s good to raise issues with the person directly, always be aware if other people need to be notified. Should you involve your line manager, mentor, or HR department? Importantly, said Scott, don’t let the situation diminish your own performance.

‘Raise the issue with whoever needs to know, and don’t lose focus on your own projects and work.’

Asking for a raise

Some of the most challenging workplace conversations can be around recognition and remuneration. Being well prepared when you approach your manager can make the difference between a favourable and unfavourable outcome.

‘With the increased cost of living that we’ve experienced recently,’ Akers acknowledged, ‘many employees who haven’t had a pay rise in a while may feel this is the time to ask. 

‘The best way to approach this is to always ask for a time to speak with your boss and come up with a summary of what you do within your role that shows why you deserve to have that pay rise,’ he continued.

‘Keep it factual and evidence-based. The fact is that, right now, there is a massive skill shortage and more jobs than available people willing to apply for them. Your boss will potentially not want to lose you if you’re good at your job because not only is intellectual property and knowledge of the business walking out the door, but you’re going to be very hard to replace in this current market.’

Even so, with economic realities and competing priorities, the answer may be ‘no’ or may be somewhat short of your expectations.

‘If that is the case, then you’ll need to consider your next steps and whether you choose to stay with that job,’ said Akers.

Read: What we wish we’d known when we started working in the arts

Harrison Scott agrees that being able to articulate your worth and contribution to the organisation is critical to a successful pay rise conversation.

‘Everyone would love a pay rise, but it has to be justified. Make sure before you ask that you’re aware of your value, that you are well versed on your achievements, and can reinforce what you are most proud of,’ he said.

Corinna Hartas added that pay rises are hard to come by and should ideally be negotiated into your contract at the beginning.

‘Asking for a pay rise is one thing, being confident in your ability to deliver on that pay rise is another,’ she cautioned.

So, be clear about your value proposition; prepare your arguments; rehearse the conversation at home; stand up, speak up, and put that well-deserved pay rise in the bank.

And as Lawrence Akers observed, ‘the more you become comfortable with being assertive and engaging in these difficult conversations, the easier they become moving forward’.

The Australian Government Fair Work Ombudsman has issued an Employee’s guide to difficult conversations in the workplace. 

Dr Diana Carroll is a writer, speaker, and reviewer based in Adelaide. Her work has been published in newspapers and magazines including the Sydney Morning Herald, The Australian, Woman's Day, and B&T. Writing about the arts is one of her great passions.