Handling Difficult Conversations
Difficult conversations are a fact of life in any workplace, whether they involve a manager delivering difficult feedback, communicating change or discussing behavioural issues, or more everyday problems such as disagreeing with a superior, responding to bad behaviour or dealing with those coming into work late.
Preparation is essential – particularly when dealing with a sensitive issue that needs to be delivered tactfully and backed up by facts. However, much of the difficulty behind a conversation lies in reacting to the person’s emotional response and dealing with conflict – areas that long-term coaching and working on emotional intelligence can support. A recent study carried out by the Learning Consultancy Partnership found that one in four line managers put off difficult conversations due to lack of preparation and 63% of managers surveyed procrastinate when it comes to problematic subjects due to apprehension of how the other person(s) may respond or react.
Addressing a difficult matter early is important and essential as it can prevent any issues from reaching more formal stages such as reaching disciplinary or grievances. Procrastinating when a difficult conversation is concerned can have a number of negative issues on an organisation such as loss of business, damage to company reputation, high staff turnover, loss of morale, loss of productivity, greater stress and missed opportunities.
Some tips for handling a difficult conversation
1. Be Clear About the Issue-
You need to reach clarity for yourself so you can articulate the issue in two or three
succinct statements. If not, you risk going off on a tangent during the conversation. The
lack of focus on the central issue will derail the conversation and sabotage your intentions.
2. Know your Objective –
What do you want to accomplish with the conversation? What is the desired outcome?
What are the non-negotiables? Plan how you will close the conversation, with clearly
3. Adopt a Mind-Set of Inquiry-
Spend some time reflecting on your attitude towards the situation and the person involved.
What are your preconceived notions about it? Your mind set will predetermine your
reaction and interpretations of the other person’s responses, so it is beneficial to approach
such a conversation with the right mind set—which in this context is one of inquiry.
4. Acknowledge Emotion-
It is your responsibility as a leader to understand and manage the emotions in the
discussion. It is important to be mindful of a person’s emotions and treating people with
respect, even if you completely disagree with them.
5. Being Comfortable with Silence-
There will be moments in the conversation where a silence occurs. The periodic silence in
the conversation allows both parties to hear what was said and lets the message sink in. A
pause also has a calming effect and can help two people connect better.
6. Preserving the Relationship-
A manager who has high emotional intelligence is always mindful to limit any collateral
damage to a relationship. It takes years to build bridges with people and only minutes to
blow them up. It is important to think about how the conversation can help fix the situation.
7. Be Consistent-
Ensure that your objective is fair and that you are using a consistent approach. For
example, if the person thinks you have one set of rules for this person and a different set
for another, you’ll be perceived as showing favouritism. Perceived inequality can have
serious detrimental effects on a relationship.
8. Choose an Appropriate Place to have the Conversation-
Calling people into your office may not be the best strategy. Sitting in your own turf, behind
your desk, shifts the balance of power too much on your side. Consider holding the
meeting in a neutral place such as a meeting room where you can sit adjacent to each
other without the desk as a barrier. Managers must ensure that the conversation is private,
and so approaching the employee during their lunch break in the staff room, would not be
9. Know How to Begin the Conversation-
The best way to start a conversation is with a direct approach. Being up front is the most
respectful way to approach a difficult situation.
10. Tone of Voice and Body Language-
Ensure your tone of voice signals discussion, rather than inquisition or patronising. It is
also important to ensure you demonstrate open and welcoming body language, using
active listening skills when the other person is speaking and responding to what you are
If we can help you with this or any other HR issue, please do not hesitate to contact
a member of our HR Team at HR Services Scotland Ltd on 0800 652 2610.
For more information about the services that we provide at HR Services Scotland,
please get in touch with us here.