Just One Thing: How to Defuse Difficult Workplace Discussions

Just One ThingAlmost all of us get this wrong in the professional environment at some time or another. Myself included.

We find ourselves in a tense situation with someone or some group who is attempting to assert a direction or insert themselves into the area we perceive as our domain, and we react by aggressively defending our position and by challenging or attacking their position.

In this situation, the part of our brain that says “fight” has won, and by dealing with the situation as a turf battle or a battle over “how” we’ve given up the chance to learn, advance and importantly, help our team or our firm.

The opportunity and the challenge is for us to take a step back and focus on uncovering the interests of our colleague (the Why) and to reconcile his or her interests with our own core thinking on the issue.

5 Ideas to Help Derail Arguments by Uncovering Interests:

1. Learn to recognize and tame your “fight” response when approached with a position-based assertion or encroachment from a co-worker. Your natural inclination is to react in kind. The right inclination is to pause and recognize the situation as an opportunity to move towards interest clarity.

2. Use “Why?” questions to uncover interests. One of the tools popularized in the Toyota Production System,  the “5 Whys Method,” is an example of this at work. When someone presents you with an idea or need, a series of “why-focused” questions will help you move from position to the essence or interest behind the idea. While it can be obnoxious to respond to every utterance of your co-worker with “Why?” you can creatively adapt this technique to fit your situation.

3. Lead the conversation by example and share your own interests. Effective resolution requires a dialog and it’s fine to be the first one to open up on the drivers behind the issue at hand. You immediately change the tone and tenor of the conversation by moving off of position and on to the motives and intentions for your approach. Your counterpart will typically respond in kind.

4. Seize and single out convergent interests. Too many people end up arguing points they already agree upon. Capture points of alignment, acknowledge the agreement and move on to identifying and discussing any divergent interests.

5. Add an objective third party to the discussion on remaining divergent interests. The objective 3rd party can listen and probe and help whittle down points of seeming divergence to their base level. Unless you’re faced with a world-domination versus let’s all live peacefully set of opposed interests, most workplace topics share a common set of interests around one or more of: improve, learn, reduce, strengthen, move faster etc, and this third party can help both of you zero in on the points of alignment.

 The Bottom-Line for Now:

Like it or not, our world of work is held hostage to our ability to communicate effectively with each other. Focusing on interests and eliminating the arguments over positions is a great way to improve communication effectiveness and gain better alignment in your organization.

More Professional Development Reads from Art Petty:book cover: shows title Leadership Caffeine-Ideas to Energize Your Professional Development by Art Petty. Includes image of a coffee cup.

Don’t miss the next Leadership Caffeine-Newsletter! Register here

For more ideas on professional development-one sound bite at a time, check out Art’s latest book: Leadership Caffeine-Ideas to Energize Your Professional Development.

New to leading or responsible for first time leader’s on your team? Subscribe to Art’s New Leader’s e-News.

An ideal book for anyone starting out in leadership: Practical Lessons in Leadership by Art Petty and Rich Petro.



By | 2016-10-22T17:11:21+00:00 May 16th, 2013|Career, Just One Thing|2 Comments

About the Author:

Art Petty is a coach, speaker and workshop presenter focusing on helping professionals and organizations learn to survive and thrive in an era of change. When he is not speaking, Art serves senior executives, business owners and high potential professionals as a coach and strategy advisor. Additionally, Art’s books are widely used in leadership development programs. To learn more or discuss a challenge, contact Art.


  1. Richard Farley June 19, 2013 at 8:59 am - Reply


    Words fail me in letting you know HOW influential your articles are to my professional development. Thank you will have to suffice for the time being.

    • Art Petty June 19, 2013 at 9:25 am - Reply

      Richard, thank you!

Leave A Comment