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September 14, 2020

How to Talk About Sensitive Subjects at Work

Written by Guest Contributor Carey Kirkpatrick

Current events can infiltrate dialogue in the workplace and affect morale, productivity, and connection, especially if you have a diverse team with different backgrounds and schools of thought. Effective internal communication affords you the opportunity to establish and reinforce your company’s culture and keep your team informed, engaged, and committed — especially during uncertainty and crisis. Providing a platform for healthy feedback, debate, and discussion helps your team feel valued.

The last few months have seen a flurry of global issues — the Covid-19 pandemic, racial protests, and a strong political divide as elections near. These aren’t local or temporary concerns. The country is engaging in a meaningful dialogue about long-term issues that demand systemwide attention and effort. That includes American workplaces. No one operates in a vacuum.

Nurturing creativity requires sensitivity. People produce their best work when tensions are dissipated and challenges are solved swiftly and with a sensible and transparent approach. In building and nurturing my own team, I’ve learned that predicting moments of instability meant I could be proactive in solving bottlenecks to inspire award-winning work. It was about prolonging moments of positive productivity and shortening times of friction.

Having these conversations can be intimidating, but it’s important to be proactive in leading conversations regardless of how difficult or uncomfortable they might be. Keep in mind that while these conversations ultimately benefit the entire team, some subjects can place a higher burden on certain workers for whom the issues hit closer to home.

Below are some guidelines to help you along the way.

First of all, why is it important to discuss sensitive issues at work?

Engaging in structured conversations with clear ground rules provides a safe space for you and your team to talk about delicate issues, regardless of the subject. Avoiding sensitive topics can stress employees and erode trust.

Engaging in conversation about sensitive issues gives the entire team an opportunity to express opinions and hear the perspectives of others, which in turn can build a better understanding and lead to increased trust.

Quite simply, having open conversations leads to a healthier, more open workplace where the team can be more invested in each other and your mission.

So How Do You Address Sensitive Topics with Employees?

  • Take time to educate yourself and your managers on the subject.
  • Acknowledge feelings and give your team and co-workers room to express their feelings if they feel comfortable doing so. Don’t pressure sharing — it’s not required. Often when people don’t speak, it’s because they’re listening.
  • Establish internal protocols to address and discuss when sensitive issues come into the workplace, whether internally or externally. These protocols could include structured meetings with leadership, anticipating employee concerns, studying the responses of peers and competitors, and measuring your potential solutions against your brand promise and company values.

How do peers converse with each other about sensitive subjects in the office? How do you handle conflicting opinions in the workplace?

  • Conflict in the workplace is inevitable, whether you’re talking about highly sensitive issues or something completely inconsequential.
  • It’s important to address conflict instead of avoiding it because ultimately you want a healthy work environment that promotes trust among co-workers.
  • Create ground rules for engagement that help everyone understand what’s OK and what’s off-limits.

What are some suggested ground rules for engaging in sensitive conversations?

  • Consider applying structure to conversations. There are many ways to do this. At its essence, adding structure means clarifying expectations by clearly outlining how the discussion will take place. This will enable your team to know when it’s appropriate to listen, when they will have the opportunity to give feedback and express their views, and how the issue will be solved. Your agenda could start by explaining the opportunity, outlining possible approaches, opening up for discussion, getting consensus, and allowing time to communicate a resolution.
  • Agree at the outset about the reason for discussion and the goals you hope to work toward.
  • Listen carefully and actively.
  • Keep tone and energy in check.
  • Identify points of agreement and disagreement, and work together to resolve them.
  • Have mechanisms in place for “agreeing to disagree” and exiting conversations.
  • Follow through on the commitments made, and build on successes.

What are some common mistakes to avoid when having conversations about sensitive subjects?

  • Don’t shoot from the hip. Avoid impulsive or emotional responses or approaches to avoid unintended consequences. Consider different points of view and outcomes to help steer in the right direction.
  • Don’t make promises you can’t keep. Be transparent and open, and don’t commit yourself or your company to something you cannot implement.
  • Don’t operate in a vacuum or act monolithically. Take time to learn about and understand the issue from a variety of points of view, whether that’s through reading, watching, or listening, so you have as full of an understanding as possible.
  • Understand that there’s no one-size-fits-all approach and that sensitive issues have nuances that require thoughtful attention and meaningful action that isn’t always easy or clear cut.
  • Use core communications best practices to make sure whatever you say or do is thoughtful and authentic.

Sometimes your efforts to nurture an environment for healthy dialogue and discussion can fail if tempers flare or if you reach an impasse. As a leader, know when it’s time to exit a conversation before irreparable damage is done, making plans to resume dialogue at a later date.

This article was originally written by Carey Kirkpatrick at CKP for Forbes.



Guest Blog Contributor Carey KirkpatrickGuest Contributor: Carey Kirkpatrick, CEO and Founder at CKP

A veteran marketing and public relations specialist, Carey Kirkpatrick founded CKP in 2014 with a focus on supporting clients through public relations, content marketing, and advertising consulting.

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