Something's wrong at work. Maybe your boss is a micro-manager, or your subordinate is screwing up assignments, or your officemate is just really annoying you. You should talk to them, but it's going to be a difficult conversation--and if you find the courage to do it, will it really make a difference?
One of the most important skills that I've begun to develop is the art of discussing difficult issues in a direct way without being unduly confrontational or causing unnecessary defensiveness. (Note that I say "begun" because although I'd like to think I've made some progress over the years, I run into situations where I could have done better every week.)
In David Bradford and Allen Cohen's Power Up (the text for David's class at Stanford Business School on High Performance Leadership), they call this skill Supportive Confrontation and describe four basic approaches to difficult conversations like this, starting with...
Approach 1: "This is the effect of your behavior on me"
You describe to the other person the negative impact they're having on you. This can be harder than it sounds because a) we often imagine that the difficulties others cause us are apparent to them, so they must be doing it intentionally, and b) this puts us in a vulnerable position relative to the other person, which is often tough to do in the workplace. But I'd argue that a) what we imagine to be true isn't necessarily so--it's surprising how often people don't realize that they're causing problems, and b) exposing our vulnerabilities, rather than trying to deny or hide them, can be an incredibly empowering experience--most people react with concern, interest and a desire to help.
That said, this is not about asking for sympathy; it's about stating the negative impact you're experiencing plainly and directly. However, as Bradford and Allen write, "This approach works only if [your] reactions cause [the other person] to want to change. But something else is needed if [the other person] is defensive, and tells [you], 'That is your problem, not mine,' or even worse, labels [you] as weak or over-sensitive." So on to...
Approach 2: "Your behavior is not meeting your apparent goals or intentions."
Just as people are often unaware of how their behavior affects us, they can be equally unaware of how their behavior affects their ability to achieve their goals or how it deviates from their stated intentions. We observe others' self-defeating behaviors or inconsistencies and imagine that they're irrational or hypocritical, but the truth is they simply may not have the data that we have by virtue of our outside perspective.
If someone's not going to be motivated to change because of their impact on you, perhaps they'll be motivated by their impact on themselves. The key here is linkage, a term that comes up frequently in Bradford and Cohen's work. They regularly emphasize the importance of leaders linking team members' personal goals to the goals of the larger group, and here they talk about linking your goal (i.e. getting the other person to change) to their goals, whatever they may be. But what if their goals are being met, despite (or even because of) their behavior? How can you induce a desire to change then? You can try...
3) "Your behavior may meet your goals, but it is very costly to you."
There's another type of blind spot--a person's inability to see what is being lost in their efforts to achieve their goals. Some people are so focused on reaching the finish line that they just can't see how many problems they're creating while running the race. Again, sharing data that you have from an outside perspective about the costs of their behavior can provide a powerful motive for change.
This can be a variation on Approach 1, in which you don't simply describe the negative impact of other person's behavior on you but show how it affects them as well. If in Approach 1 you'd say, "Your behavior is really bothering me," in Approach 3 you'd add, "...and as a result, I'm a lot less motivated to help you succeed."
4) "In what ways am I part of the problem?"
The first three approaches in Bradford and Cohen's framework are presented almost as sequential alternatives: If Approach 1 won't work, try Approach 2, and then move on to Approach 3. But I don't believe that Approach 4 should be regarded as the final step in this sequence, the last resort if all else fails. Rather, it's a tool that can be used to complement all the other approaches at any stage of the process. And given that most of our working relationships are systems in which our reactions to the other person's behavior affect and modify that behavior in turn, it's likely that we are part of the problem at some level.
We shouldn't use this approach as a political ploy. If you're completely confident that you're not part of the problem, don't ask this question just to seem nicer or more sympathetic; there are more effective and authentic ways to accomplish those goals (and if you're not making a genuine inquiry, the other person will see through it.) But I've come to realize that when I'm having a problem with another person, it's pretty rare that they're the exclusive source of the trouble.
Two final notes: 1) Throughout Bradford and Cohen's approaches to difficult conversations, note the emphasis on behavior. It's essential to avoid guessing about another person's motives, because we can't know what they're thinking. Almost everyone believes they're acting rationally, and most of the time they are acting rationally based on the data they possess. (As Jean Renoir said, "The real hell of life is that everyone has his reasons.")
And 2) Although I've found Bradford and Cohen's work incredibly helpful as a conceptual framework, you can't develop these skills by reading about them. You have to put them into practice, and one of the best places I've found to do that are the "T-groups" ("T" for "training") that are the basis for Stanford Business School's Interpersonal Dynamics class (which David established.) The T-group methodology, developed by Kurt Lewin, essentially convenes a group of people who give each other direct--and sometimes quite blunt--feedback (a term coined by Lewin), and it provides a very rich environment in which to experiment with and improve upon these skills. In addition to the class at the Business School, Stanford's Lifelong Learning program holds T-groups on a regular basis.