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Care talk with Tanya Russel: Awkward conversations

QUESTION: Last month you gave advice on how to begin an awkward conversation with a colleague. I would like advice on how to be on the receiving end of those awkward conversations. I hate conflict and am worried that I might let my emotions get in the way of resolving an issue a colleague has raised with me. What should I keep in mind to help me accept potentially awkward feedback in a respectful way?


Communication is a two-way street. Often when it is one-sided, it can result in conflict and both people feeling that they haven’t been heard. As much as it is important for one person to have the skill to begin an awkward conversation to resolve an issue, it is equally important for the listener to be able to hear what the speaker has to say in a respectful way.

The words people say in a face-to-face conversation make up about 7% of the information communicated. Tone of voice contributes approximately 23% to communication whereas body language makes up about 70% of our overall communication. So ensure that not only do you sound open-minded in what you say and how you say it, but that your body language expresses this too. Sitting stiffly with your arms crossed sends the wrong message, so despite how anxious or awkward you may feel, try to have an open posture with your arms down.

One of the most important listening skills is the art of silence. The role of the listener is to do just that. Resist the temptation to interrupt, don’t try to defend yourself or tell the speaker s/he is wrong. The moment you do these things the conversation has become a disagreement and you project defensiveness on your part. Be curious and ask questions to help clarify the issues raised with you. The goal of a difficult conversation is to acknowledge the issue and emotional effect it has had on the person raising the issue, even if you did not intend to make the other person feel that way.

Try to stay calm, on the surface at least. Find ways to deal with your emotions both before and after the conversation.

Listen: remember the importance of silence and of being open-minded.

Emotional intelligence: be aware of your emotions and the speaker’s emotions, and ensure you manage your emotions at the time. It takes courage for someone to raise issues so empathy will be needed.

Action: what actions need to be taken as a result of this conversation? Do you need to do something differently?

Reflect: all awkward situations and moments of adversity are opportunities to reflect on ourselves, what is important, how people see us and how we see ourselves. Is this an opportunity for growth and change?

Regardless of how well prepared both people are, the conversation may still feel awkward. But, as the listener, or the one receiving awkward feedback, if you can keep these tips in mind, there is a good chance of achieving a positive outcome.