Top 10 difficult conversations: new (surprising) research

29 July 2015 -

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New research from CMI shows that Brits find it harder to ask their boss for a pay rise than dump a partner

Matt Scott

Difficult conversations. Everyone has them but, by their very nature, no-one wants to have to deal with them. And this is especially true when it comes to difficult conversations in the workplace.

In fact, research from CMI has revealed that Brits find it easier to dump a partner than ask their boss for a pay rise.

When asked about what they found it hardest to talk about, 33% said talking about pay at work made it onto their list, while only 17% included relationship break-ups on their list of most difficult conversations.

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The survey also found that the four most difficult conversations were all work-based scenarios (see below); personal topics such as sex and money come further down the list.

The Tricky 10 - Britain’s most difficult conversations occur in the workplace 

  1. Pay packets – 33%
  2. Inappropriate behaviour in the workplace – 31% 
  3. Feedback on poor performance – 30%
  4. Promotions – 23%
  5. Sex – 19%
  6. Relationship break ups – 17%
  7. Family relationships – 16%
  8. Money – 16% 
  9. Health – 15%
  10. Letting someone go from a job – 10% 

But with more than half of workers saying they deal with a difficult conversation at least once a month, why are workplace conversations so hard to deal with?

Petra Wilton, director of strategy and external affairs at CMI, said it’s because managers do not have the support or training needed to deal with difficult work-based conversations.

“Our survey findings reveal that difficult conversations are really taking their toll on workers,” she said. “When it comes to our home life we often rely on friends and family to support us with tricky discussions. At work, with no advice or training, it can feel like tiptoeing through a minefield.

“It’s no wonder 61% of people told us they would like to learn how to manage workplace conversations with more confidence.”

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Speaking to Insights, Martin Leuw, chairman of Incube8it and Clearswift and non-executive chairman of Leathwaite, said that middle managers are often the worst affected by the lack of training in handling difficult conversations, as austere times have led to an increase in the work they are expected to handle.

“Too often, what tends to happen in businesses, particularly off the back of the five or six years of austerity we have had, learning and training programmes have been cutback,” he said. “One of the worst affected areas is the squeezed middle, where people are pushing issues up to their managers just as senior managers are pushing them down.

“This puts a huge amount of pressure on the team leaders and middle managers and, quite often, they just haven’t had sufficient training to help them deal with these difficult and challenging conversations.”

Want to find out what type of conversationalist you are? Take CMI’s Conversationalist quiz to identify how you normally approach difficult conversations and find out what you could be doing differently.

And don’t forget to join the conversation on Twitter: use the hashtag #difficultconversations and keep up-to-date by following @InsightsCMI and @CMI_managers 

All data is taken from a One Poll survey of 2,000 UK respondents run between 11th and 13th May 2015.

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