Workplace Conflict: Three-Prong Approach to Tough Talks

Apr 05, 2022
workplace conflict

One year ago this month in our blog (time has flown!), we shared our five-step formula for tough talks from the book, Conquer Sticky Situations by Expedition HR CEO & Founder, Jill Shroyer. If you missed that blog, read it here. This month’s blog expands upon the 5-steps with our 3-Prong Approach.

These three-prongs are truly “where the magic happens!”

As a super quick review of the 5-steps:

The Five-Step Formula

  1.  Thanks
  2.  Why
  3.  What
  4.  How
  5.  Thanks Again


The first step is to express gratitude, which has a place everywhere, even in tough conversations . . . especially in tough conversations.


The second step is to state the reason for the difficult conversation. This is where you get the issue out into the open, address the elephant in the room as they say.


The third step, “What”, is to state exactly what needs to change. Don’t dance around it. Elaborate on what you said in step 2 for the “Why” step.


The next step is to tell the person you’re speaking with exactly how you expect the behavior to change or what you expect them to start or stop doing.

Thanks Again

This part is simple. Tell them again that you appreciate that they had the conversation with you!

Three-Prongs: Be Simple, Straightforward,
and Human Focused

Next, we will will layer in the “Three-Prong Approach” to the five steps. These prongs give more clarity around how to structure what you say in each of the five steps.


The first prong of the three-prong approach is to simplify. Less said, best said! The simpler the message, the more it will leave less room for misinterpretation.

Time frame: In order to keep the message short, a rule of thumb is to set a time frame for the conversation. If the conversation goes longer than the time frame you set, plan to stop and revisit later. Set a later time (either later the same day or in the next day or two) when you’ll continue and finish the conversation. This serves to give all parties time to reflect on what was discussed and even think of solutions on their own, which may help ensure the next conversation leads to a resolution.

Repetition: To keep the message simple and to the point, repeat yourself if needed! Repeating what you say keeps you from saying something unplanned which can result in the conversation going off track.

Brain-dump, then clean up: I recommend starting with a “brain-dump.” This is when you get all your thoughts out on paper, no matter how messy. Then, go back, apply the five steps and remove and/or replace words to be more concise.

In the full-length book Conquer Sticky Situations, there is a full exercise on the step-by-step process to brain dump and then simplify.


Memorize: Once you have the issues simplified, memorize them. If you have trouble memorizing them, they’re too long! This is a call to revisit your clean-up from above.



The second prong is to be straightforward. A brief, but vague message is useless.


Watch out for two sneaky words that can ruin your straightforward message – these words are “But” and “However.”

Separating your thoughts into two distinct sentences instead of inserting these words is a way to ensure one doesn’t unintentionally negate the other. When you want to use one of these words, stick a big old period in there and end the sentence. Then, start a new sentence with the next thought.

For example, instead of saying, “You are loved by your peers and we love having you on the team, but moving forward we need to work on some issues related to your work performance,” you could re-phrase instead to say, “You are loved by your peers and we love having you on the team. (Pause for a second.) Moving forward, we need to work on a few issues related to your work performance.”

Being straightforward is not a reason to apologize!

You do not need to begin your straightforward statement sounding like this, “Sorry . . . but I need to have a tough conversation.”

Instead, dive in and say what needs to be said, with confidence!



The third and final prong is about making the human connection first.

You can accomplish being human-centered in these types of conversations with three little words.

Are you OK?

Do you need to use this in every conversation or is it always appropriate? No. Use your judgement. Look at it as a tool you can use when it fits the situation. The question works in other forms too, as long as the sentiment is the same:

  • Are you doing OK?
  • How are you?
  • How are things?
  • I’m worried about you—are you OK?

You may ask – Ok… I have these tips and scripts in my “sticky employee situation” toolbox, but what do I do when they introduce a medical issue, share some other personal issue (like they’re not themselves lately because they are getting divorced), or tell me something they don’t like about me? What if they get angry or upset?

You have options! In these situations, consider:

  • Powerful Pause: Tell them you think it is best to pause the conversation for the time being and revisit it later due to emotions running high. Try saying, “I think it is best to pause the conversation for now. I will reach out to you tomorrow” and then leave the location where the conversation was taking place. Take a deep breath and re-group before you revisit the conversation.
  • Choose words carefully: Use words such as, “I understand this is tough to hear and you are feeling upset” OR “I am sorry to hear you are going through that. Let’s re-group to discuss this tomorrow. I’ll reach out to you then” can help diffuse a tense situation.

There are two entire chapters that go into lots of detail on these “What If?” scenarios and tools to handle them in the full-length book.

Check out the full paperback version for the numerous tips and tricks for when the unexpected happens!

Empathy is a great way to spur the human connection. Empathy is the ability to put yourself in someone else’s shoes and relate personally to what they’re feeling. It is not always easy to know what to say in a situation calling for empathy. Like many things, developing empathy is a skill you must work on.

Before starting a sticky conversation, pause and think about how you’d feel if the message was being delivered to you. This is being empathetic to the person who’s hearing the news from you. How would you like this tough message relayed to you? This is a great starting place to ensure you insert humanness into these conversations.

Do you feel more empowered to have the tough talk, at work or in your personal life? We hope this blog and the previous blog, 5-steps to hard conversations, helped. Good luck!

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