Handling Difficult Conversations


From time to time all managers will face conversations which they anticipate will be difficult and which they may feel ill-equipped to handle. Scenarios of this kind include: addressing under- or poor performance, tackling instances of unacceptable behaviour, investigating reports of bullying, giving developmental feedback, turning down employee requests, dealing with sensitive personal issues, handling a grievance or disciplinary process, or telling an employee that their job is at risk of redundancy.

Instigating a difficult conversation can feel daunting and there is a natural tendency for managers to delay taking action in the hopes that the issue will be resolved without their intervention. But this is rarely the case. Procrastination won’t make problems disappear and in fact, if issues are ignored they are likely to escalate and become even more difficult to resolve, causing negative consequences both for all those involved and for the wider organisation. It is far better to tackle problems at an early stage as this can help to nip problems in the bud, prevent the situation from deteriorating and maintain good working relationships with colleagues.

We all tend to put off difficult conversations because of the intensity and complexity of the emotions they arouse – both for the manager initiating the conversation and for the person they are speaking with. Fear of how people will react and whether you will be able to handle their reactions, feelings of vulnerability or concern about a loss of control can make us all reluctant to raise an issue face to face. You may even be concerned that you will not be supported by senior managers, your HR department and/or other colleagues if you take steps to address sensitive issues. However, by adopting the right approach, preparing yourself carefully and developing the right skills, mindset and behaviour, you will be able maximise your ability to handle the conversation effectively and steer it to a successful conclusion acceptable to all involved.

What is a Difficult Conversation?

A difficult conversation is one whose primary subject matter is potentially contentious and/or sensitive and may elicit strong, complex emotions that can be hard to predict or control.

Handling Difficult Conversations Guidance, Tips and Best Practices

  1. Determine the purpose of the conversation
  2. Adopt the right approach
  3. Recognise and manage your emotional state
  4. Challenge you own assumptions and beliefs
  5. Plan the exchange
  6. Provide an opportunity for preparation
  7. Open the conversation
  8. Present your side of the story
  9. Listen to their side of the story
  10. Handle reactions with care
  11. Find the middle ground and reach an amicable solution

For detailed explanation of each step and to find out more about handling difficult conversations, view the guide below.

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