Balancing Act: Tips to make tough workplace talks easier

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One morning, shortly after ABC News contributor Tory Johnson stepped off the set of "Good Morning America," her boss called her into a meeting. Barbara Fedida, the highest-ranking female executive at ABC News, told Ms. Johnson she didn't look as good as she could and offered to connect her to a stylist that would give her a makeover.

"She never used the words 'fat,' 'diet' or 'obesity,' but her message was clear: I needed to lose weight," Ms. Johnson said. "Let's face it: On TV, looks matter."

They matter in other workplaces, too. Awkward conversations around personal appearance and behavior are increasingly happening in businesses of all sizes. From weight concerns to body odor, inappropriate outfits to annoying behavior, managers find it daunting to tackle these uncomfortable discussions with workers. But sometimes there's just no avoiding it.

Handling the difficult conversation requires skill and empathy and works best when the person initiating it has a good, trusting relationship with the employee. "When you love your job and respect the people you work with, you are more receptive to hearing something from them," said Ms. Johnson, who has published her weight-loss story in a new book, "The Shift."

Even when there's mutual trust, a soft entry tends to work best: acknowledging that you are about to bring up a sensitive matter and offering a solution or encouraging the other person to come up with their own.

The assumption should be that the person is oblivious to their appearance or behavior problem, which turns out to be a great conversation opener, said Scott Garvis, president of Dale Carnegie South Florida. "You could say something like, 'You are probably not aware of it, but you are judged in the business world on how you look, how you act, what you say and how you say it.' "

Mr. Garvis said it helps to cushion an awkward conversation by showing empathy. Offer up an example of your own blind spots or mistakes and emphasize that someone spoke up to allow you to make changes.

Executive speaking coach Anne Freedman, founder of SpeakOut in Miami, says in almost any difficult conversation, you need to get across that what you are recommending is going to help the person with his or her relationships with other people.

Choosing the right place for the conversation is important, too. If your office seems intimidating or too public, arrange a private meeting. You might also consider inviting the employee for lunch or a cup of coffee.

While difficult workplace conversations take courage, the consequence of not having them can be costly. An overwhelming majority (85 percent) of employees at all levels say they experience workplace conflict to some degree, spending as much as 2.8 hours per week dealing with it, according to a CPP Inc. study.

Managers tend to postpone these talks, or skirt the real issue, hoping the concern will go away on its own, Ms. Berger said: "That almost never happens."

yourbiz

Cindy Krischer Goodman is CEO of BalanceGal LLC; balancegal@gmail.com First Published October 19, 2013 8:00 PM


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