What Causes Uncomfortable Work Conversations And How To Avoid Them

The foundation of good communication isn’t the words but the feelings underlying them.

What Causes Uncomfortable Work Conversations And How To Avoid Them
[Photo: Ezra Bailey/Getty Images]

In 2010, researchers at Harvard Medical School and the University of Boston found that the U.S. medical industry wastes over $12 billion per year thanks to inefficiencies caused by poor communication.


You probably don’t need a study to tell you why good communication is so important in the workplace, though. At best, it heads off conflicts and keeps everyone working together–productively and happily. Other studies (for good measure) have shown how communication plays a direct role in boosting employee satisfaction and avoiding burnout.

So it follows that, at worst, bad communication can be a major source of stress, discomfort, and even employee attrition. But not all uncomfortable work conversations are necessarily bad–they might just signal that it’s time to make some improvements in how your team members communicate with one another. Here’s how.

Creating Positivity In A Bad Environment

Unfortunately, poor communication is the norm in many businesses. Typical workplace conversations have been found to contain four times as much rehashing of past problems and assigning of blame as they do present-day and forward-looking solutions. This leads to an atmosphere of fear and tension, and increases the number of uncomfortable conversations employees are likely to have. Before long, a combative mentality pervades your office, preventing basic cooperation from occurring.

Under these conditions, even trying to lighten the mood can do damage when it’s done wrong. Deliberately injecting humor might feel like a smart move, and mere light banter, to the person doing it, but it might make others bristle. Worse yet, trying to be the optimistic joker in a tense work environment can even make others suspicious that you’re being manipulative.

This isn’t to say that you shouldn’t crack jokes–far from it–it’s just about knowing when the circumstances are conducive to having a chuckle, and when they aren’t.


Generally speaking, positive communication is something that you can model and teach from a position of leadership. Here’s a good rule of thumb: If you find yourself using negative or cynical humor, assigning blame, or focusing on the past, then stop and rethink. What you consider a casual conversation might not be received that way.

Instead, look for a more positive thing to say–something that asserts shared values and focuses on future achievements and solutions. If you hear others, especially those in positions of leadership, dwelling on negatives, take them aside and let them know the harm they’re doing. It’s only by offering some positive models that you can lighten the gloom and generate more authentic, optimistic forms of communication.

Where Discomfort Comes From

This isn’t to say that you can completely do away with uncomfortable conversations. Certain conversations in particular make people uncomfortable. A recent survey by Fractl showed that most people feel uncomfortable when discussing accountability or how to handle a difficult person.

But that’s no reason to avoid having those discussions altogether. If they aren’t addressed, then uncomfortable issues will fester. It may be unwise to take too bullish an approach, though–trying to tackle the problem immediately and head-on can upset more than a few apple carts.

Instead, take a step back and consider what might be causing the tension around a difficult conversation–whether it’s one that clearly needs to be had or one that’s just occurred. If people are avoiding accountability, why is that? What don’t they want to be held accountable for? If an employee is being difficult, what about their own experience in the office might be making them uncomfortable? And if you’re a leader or manager, what about you? Do you feel uncomfortable because they’re being troublesome, or because they’re challenging your assumptions?


Understanding the source of discomfort will allow you to steer the conversation away from a head-on conflict over the surface issue. Instead, try and tackle the underlying patterns. This will lead to better communication, more substantial solutions, and a calmer atmosphere. If emotional energy isn’t being spent on arguments, then it can be spent on positive interactions, humor, and fun, making the upsides of office life more emotionally fulfilling than the dramas.

If negativity is everybody’s most immediate emotional outlet, you can bet that they’ll indulge in it.

Managing Your Emotions

This, ultimately, is the bedrock of good communication–not the words, but the feelings underlying them. Yes, the words are important in expressing and shaping those emotions. But emotions are what determine people’s satisfaction and productivity–they bring out both the best and the worst in us.

As a leader, your own emotions can have a huge impact on the people around you. You need to be aware of what you’re feeling and how it’s affecting you. Practice mindfulness techniques, like taking a 10-minute break when things get difficult. Focus on your breathing, empty your mind, and see what thoughts or feelings emerge. Study them, see where they’re coming from, and let go of as much negative energy as you can. When you can’t let go, look at what you can do to change the situation.

This isn’t always easy to do, but repressing your own discomfort and frustration almost never works. Your colleagues and team members will catch on fast–and it’ll make them uncomfortable, too.

About the author

Mark Lukens is a founding partner of Method3, a global management consulting firm. He has 20-plus years of C-Level experience across multiple sectors including health care, education, government, and talent/human resources. In addition, Mark currently serves as Chairman of the Board for Behavioral Health Service North, a large behavioral health services provider in New York