How to reap the peace dividend at work

On World Peace Day it feels appropriate to look at ways to handle difficult conversations with clients and resolve conflict at work.

DIFFICULT CONVERSATIONS are an unavoidable fact of life. And yet most people do their very best to avoid them. Whether it’s an unhappy client, or a colleague whose performance is causing concern, it’s crucial to confront these situations in a way that is calm, clear, and leaves both parties feeling satisfied.

A failure to get your message across in these situations can damage morale, erode trust, and create unnecessary personal suffering. And yet people in business consistently find themselves ill-equipped to cope in these situations.

Just how do you act when a long-standing client demands to know why his portfolio has failed to beat the market, when your technology crashes and clients are blaming it on you, or when a colleague is consistently late for important client meetings?

How you handle these situations can have a profound impact on the bottom line. According to a 2022 survey by The Harris Poll and Grammarly, the annual cost to US companies of poor workplace communication is $1.2 trillion.

Here are some techniques for pacifying angry clients:

Control the narrative

Anticipate complaints and come up with solutions before you speak to the client. If you know the client is going to complain about the portfolio performance, for example, then be the one to bring it up first. Don’t hide in the trench and wait for his mortars to fall. Take the front foot.

“Martin, it’s been a bad quarter,” you’ll say. “The portfolio has suffered as a result, and I will completely understand if you’re concerned.” This will immediately spike his guns. And while he is thinking of how to respond, very quickly, you keep marching forward with sound reasoning or tangible solutions. Not excuses. Solutions. “This is what we have done to fix the situation. This is our strategy going forward. This is why we believe that – in turbulent markets – our diversified approach will preserve your capital over the long term.”

Dig deeper

People who genuinely care about their clients want to get to the root of why they are unhappy. A client calling in with a complaint is a golden opportunity to deepen the relationship. Once you’ve acknowledged the complaint, given the client a feeling of validation (yes, I completely understand why this must have been a nightmare for you) you must seek more information.

Get them to be specific about what has gone wrong and, importantly, how it has affected them. And then reassure them that a solution has either been found, or is being urgently sought. And make sure to keep them updated. There is nothing more infuriating for a client than feeling they’ve been left in the dark.


Another good technique to dig deeper and give the client a feeling of validation, is to isolate the complaint. “While we are working on this problem for you, is there anything else that you’ve been unhappy with recently?” While this can feel like an open invitation for the client to launch into a cavalcade of complaints, nine times out of 10, they’ll say no. And be happy that you asked.

Resolving internal conflicts

When it comes to internal difficulties at work, we tend to go wrong in two ways: first, we run away. We flee from the problem and hope it might go away on its own. But it won’t. Like a gangrenous toenail, it’ll sit and fester and end up infecting the whole leg. Most of us have an innate fear of confrontation. So, step one is to summon up the courage to confront the situation. In management consultant speak: “Eat the frog”.

Once you’ve decided on a course of action, it’s important not to fall into the second trap: that is, a failure to look at the issue from your colleague’s point of view. Too often we ambush the unwitting person – often in a public place – and dump the issue directly at their feet, with no context and no specifics. “Wendy, you need to be more enthusiastic in client meetings. Can you just make more of an effort please next time?” This Bull-in-an-Apple-Store approach will only end one way. Wendy is angry and upset. She retreats into her shell. She fears her next client meeting and loses her confidence.

Here is a different way to approach internal issues, without causing conflict:

• Pick an appropriate time and place to launch the conversation: not in front of peers.

• Be timely and specific: in this meeting, on this day, with this client, you zoned out.

• Explain the impact of their actions: the client noticed. It went down badly.

• Before you start criticising, dig deeper. Find out if there might be a reason for the behaviour.

• Listen to what they are saying. Actually listen. And respond to their comments directly.

• Ensure you’ve got your message across, with no room for confusion.

• Agree an action plan, and a time to meet again for a follow-up discussion.

When you finish the conversation, both of you must feel satisfied with how the conversation went. All too often we end up with, in the words of George Bernard Shaw “the illusion that communication has taken place”.

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