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Consultant Art Petty says everything important at work happens through challenging conversations.

“In too many instances, our discomfort for talking about tough topics reduces these conversations to a muddled mess of mixed-up ideas or an endless string of debates that go nowhere. If you’re striving to stand out from the pack and get ahead in your organization, I encourage you to focus on strengthening your skills for planning, conducting and succeeding with your challenging conversations,” he writes on his blog.

He offers three tips:

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  • Learn to be your best when things get tense: Your first instinct may be fight or flight, since that’s basic to our human wiring. Instead, you need to be at your best, which will take practice and extreme self-control. “Teach yourself to trigger a brain reset as soon as you find yourself in the middle of a sudden, challenging confrontation,” Mr. Petty says. For him, that includes acknowledging the reality of the situation, relaxing his neck muscles since he tends to tense up there, taking three deep breaths, and moving to action by asking a question or leaning in to the verbal attack with extreme empathy followed by a counter-punch. For example, “I’m glad you raised this issue, Bob. Let me highlight again how the idea resolves the issue you raised.”
  • Have a message mapped out: These situations are usually known in advance and you should plan for them. His message-mapping technique involves writing a core message in the centre of a sheet of paper with no more than four key supporting points surrounding that and then supporting data or evidence adjacent to each of those points. Get help to develop and test the map; it’s not as easy as those directions suggest. Then practise using it. “Armed with the content and context of your message map, every issue, every question and every annoying shot can be dealt with by returning to the map. There’s something delightful about watching a detractor swing in the wind when they’ve failed at knocking you off your perch and in fact have the tide of support turned against them by your calm demeanor and crisp, well-practiced delivery,” he writes.
  • Use finesse: Quit fighting communication battles with force. Passion and energy won’t cut it in these situations. You need finesse, moving from arguing about positions to finding interests in common.

While on the topic of communication, let’s look at three styles he outlines that in any situation – whether challenging or mundane conversations – can trip you up:

  • You’re a watchmaker in a time-teller world: When we ask some people the time, they tell us how to build a watch. That’s a dangerous tendency, as it turns other people off, particularly in our frenzied world. Be careful that in providing context you’re not reaching so deep or rambling that the other person has tuned out. “There’s a time and place for deep context and long stories – for example, campfires. In the workplace, it’s imperative to focus your message, engage colleagues in a dialog, and let everyone move on in pursuit of their respective challenges,” he says. Often we aren’t aware of this flaw, so ask colleagues for feedback on your communication style.
  • You’re a chronic interrupter: Many people interrupt colleagues, to the point of even finishing their sentences. “While the interrupter perceives this as a positive sign of understanding, it is pathologically annoying to the person speaking and an impediment to clear verbal and non-verbal communication. It is also disrespectful to the other party.” Check that you aren’t doing this and, if so, self-censor.
  • You’re an arguer: It can be fun to argue politics, economics or sports with friends. But at work, it’s a pain to have a colleague who is always taking the other side. This is a tough habit to break. He says it usually takes coaching based on actual observation to help individuals change their argumentative tendencies.

The grass isn’t always greener

The grass often looks greener in another workplace. But human resources consultant Tim Sackett counters with a less optimistic version of the situation:

  • Fifty per cent is actually about the same shade of green: You’ll find the job, the people, and the money almost the same. The only change is the name and maybe the location.
  • Thirty per cent is going to be a nice shade of light brown: The grass isn’t green at all; it’s dead. That’s a high percentage, so be careful.
  • Ten per cent isn’t grass at all. Someone replaced the grass with some other material that looks like grass. “You were hoping for a better job, and you got something that isn’t better but not worse, it’s not even the job you expected, so you can’t really compare,” Mr. Sackett writes on his blog.
  • Ten per cent is much greener: Everything will be better and you’ll be happy you made the move. You found dream-job green.

So, Mr. Sackett figures you have a one in 10 chance of actually getting what you think you’re getting. Yet most employees figure they have a 70- to 90-per-cent chance of finding the new job better. That’s because you’re being sold by the new company; you overvalue what you don’t know compared to what you already have, or you overvalue what others have compared to what you have. “Don’t underestimate what you currently have. It’s probably way better than you’re making it out to be, and the new gig isn’t as good as it sounds. That’s not sexy, that’s just reality,” he concludes.

Ten questions to expose toxic people

The last person you want to add to your team – for a project, or permanently – is a toxic person. Here are 10 questions you can ask to weed them out, offered by trainer Dan Rockwell on his blog:

  • What are you learning?
  • How many people have you helped earn promotions?
  • Tell me about one of your failures.
  • What have you learned from failure?
  • When was the last time you apologized? What did you say?
  • Who have you recently helped? What did you do that was helpful?
  • When were you wrong?
  • When was the last time you changed your mind?
  • What percentage of your time is spent listening? Talking?
  • When did you last say thank you?

Quick hits

  • It can be difficult to work with somebody who doesn’t seem to care, but entrepreneur Seth Godin doesn’t believe that’s often the case.  Instead, they may just not see what you see, or they interpret it differently, or if they do see, it’s something different from what you see. His action point: If they saw what you saw and it was related to how they saw themselves, they would act differently.
  • When asked in a job interview why you are interested in the available position, put the company in the forefront of your answer. Michele Mavi of Atrium Staffing says you are being hired to add value to the company as it seeks to achieve its goals.
  • The four most trust-creating words, according to consultant Charles Green, are “tell me more, please.”
  • Spending money on time-saving purchases can improve happiness. But most people believe that the future will be less busy than the present, so they don’t value such purchases as highly as they should. To counter that, you need to prompt them to think the future will be as busy as today.
  • Times New Roman is the most common type font for resumés. Here are five alternatives, according to recruiters sampled by Arial (a safe choice), Helvetica (a trusted classic), Gill Sans and Gill Sans Light (clean and classy), Calibri (interesting yet professional) and Georgia (fun and contemporary).

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