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In our 5th blog from Dr Rosie Gilderthorp, we explore how to have difficult conversations at work.

There are times as a military spouse when you cannot be the ideal employee.Most military spouses will face a situation where home life interferes with their career. If you are employed (or self-employed with clients that need work to get done on time) this means we need to have some difficult conversations.

When I worked in the NHS I was frequently called away from my duties to pick up my daughter when she was unwell. It was always short notice. It was always serious and it was always extremely anxiety provoking.

Time and time again I faced disapproving looks and comments like “can’t your mum pick her up?” or “where is her father?” Usually these were well intentioned comments but they cut me deeply because I couldn’t even call my partner, let alone ask him to pick up our daughter and my family were miles away.  In those moments I felt like I was fighting an invisible battle completely alone.

Do you recognise any of this?

When we are feeling judged by others, anxious, lonely, or any other strong, painful emotion our threat system is likely to be dominant. As we have seen in previous blogs, this means that our body and mind gets ready to fight, flight or freeze; filling us full of energy and stress hormones that give us the ability to act rapidly and decisively. Unfortunately, once the threat system is activated our soothing system goes offline. The soothing system holds our ability to connect and co-operate with others and find creative solutions to problems.

That would be pretty useful when you have to have a difficult conversation, right?

It is therefore crucial that before you attempt to have any difficult conversations at work you make sure that your body and mind are working WITH you rather than against you. This is my process for dealing with a difficult conversation, conflict or disagreement.

1. Activate your soothing system

You need to get your soothing system back online so you can use your best co-operation and problem-solving skills. In this blog series we have discussed several very effective ways to do this. Soothing breathing will help communicate to your body quickly that you are safe and that it can safely switch off the threat response. Mindful awareness of what is happening in your body will help you to get some distance from any thoughts and feelings that may be winding you up more. Dropping anchor will help you if you can feel panic or another strong emotion start to take control.

You can find videos of all of these exercises and in-depth explanations via the button below.

2. See their perspective

One of the key abilities we lose when the threat system is activated is the ability to see the other person’s point of view. It is not useful to see the situation from the perspective of a sabre tooth tiger that wants to eat you. It IS however, useful to see your bosses perspective when you have to explain that you can’t work Friday’s anymore due to childcare.

Seeing the other person’s point of view will also activate your ability to connect with them which will continue to soothe your system and keep the threat system at bay.

Once you are sure that your soothing system is working then have a go at this exercise:

Write a brief letter TO the person you need to have a tough conversation with. State the problem you are facing, why it is difficult for you (including how you feel and what you are worried about) and any ideas you have for resolving it.

Read that letter and now write a letter FROM the other person in response. Make sure you include what is difficult for them about the problem, how it makes them feel, how they feel about talking about the problem and how their life will change as a result of your solution. Really get into their shoes and write completely from their perspective.

3. Create a plan

Look at your two letters.
Are there any areas of common ground between you?
Is there anything you are both worried about?
Anything you are both feeling?
Then spend ten minutes brainstorming some potential solutions to the problem, write down ANYTHING that comes into your head. Next look through the list, are there any solutions that would be acceptable to both of you?
Create a note card for yourself (or notes on your phone) with notes of the common ground between you and any acceptable solutions you have come up with. Don’t worry if you haven’t found any!

4. Show vulnerability

Now it is meeting time! You will often hear the advice to “talk about YOU” in a difficult conversation. It is true that framing things as ‘I feel” and ‘I am worrying about” is more helpful than saying things like “you make me feel” or “you always do XYZ….” This is because when we use the word “you” in an argument, conflict situation or difficult conversation we are signalling to the other person’s ancient brain that they have annoyed us.

Their threat system will therefore kick into action in case we decide to fight them. For the reasons we outlined above the threat system is something we want to keep out of a difficult conversation as much as possible. BUT it is not usually as simple as never saying the word “you.” If you really want to keep both of your soothing system’s online you will need to show that you are making yourself vulnerable.

This does not mean you need to air your dirty laundry. It just means that as you describe the problem you are facing you need to adopt open, relaxed body language, make chilled out eye contact (the kind you naturally do, not the intense kind) and state your fears first.

It also works well at this point to build a real CONNECTION by bringing up something you both care about or can agree on.

Some examples…

In the example I gave earlier I knew I had to tell my boss that I had to reduce my hours. I was terrified but after working through the steps above it went like this:

 “I feel frustrated about my lack of productivity on Friday’s and I’m worried about the impact on the team as a whole” (common ground)

“I wanted to let you know that I’m having a hard time with childcare at the moment and I am feeling very stressed and worried” (showing vulnerability)

5. Suggest options

Sometimes our threat system gets activated simply because we are faced with an unexpected situation. If you are talking to a boss or someone else who is going to need to change their behaviour, then you may find they feel threatened and react badly simply because they are caught off guard.

You can help prevent this by showing that you understand this and offering some solutions. Even if your only suggestion is “we can both have a think about how it could work and make a plan next week” you are providing an obvious next step, so no one is in danger of looking stupid.

Some examples…

“I know this will be complicated to work out (empathy) but one way it could work is if I work an extra hour Monday to Thursday and then log on from home in a Saturday morning (solution)”


“I can imagine this is going to be hard (empathy) to deal with but why don’t we both go away and think about some options and have a meeting next week to see what will work best (solution).”

6. Apologise and repair

Sometimes you will have nothing to apologise for so skip this step. But often we do things that we are not proud of in order to try and avoid a conflict at work.

I once hid from my boss in a cupboard because I didn’t want to face up to the fact I had missed a deadline. This is a very understandable threat system response but once I had soothed myself I realised I needed to apologise for it as it had wasted both of our time.

Apologising shows vulnerability again as you are laying yourself open for more criticism. It also shows a genuine willingness to maintain a good relationship that will most likely be appreciated.

If you follow these steps, you will know that you have done all that you can to deliver bad news or had a hard conversation effectively. Of course, we cannot control the other person. You may have a boss who is under so much pressure their threat system is constantly on high alert and they may not respond positively WHATEVER you do. Life sometimes throws very unfair slings and arrows. However, when you know you have acted with integrity, courage and compassion those slings and arrows are a lot easier to take.

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