Date: 13th Mar 2017

Difficult conversations – as their name suggests - are never easy. There are things you can do to make them easier.


What Are Difficult Conversations?

Difficult conversations are conversations where you have to manage emotions (both yours and the other persons) and they often also involve discussing sensitive information. They typically arise when dealing with poor performance, poor behaviour, complaints, personality clashes or when dealing with someone’s personal problems. In all these situations, the person you are talking to will probably not like what they are hearing. They may become angry or upset. They may take it personally or they may blame you personally for the situation.

Part Of Your Toolkit

Learning to handle difficult conversations well is a vital tool in your manager’s toolkit. Avoiding them doesn’t help the overall situation. Making sure you engage in difficult conversations will help your employees understand where they need to improve. If you do it well, you can even make some potentially difficult conversation a positive experience for both parties.

Preparation Is Key

To ensure the message you need to deliver is delivered fairly, prepare well. Make sure you separate your opinion from conclusions you reached based on data and information. Make sure you understand how you reached the conclusion you’re going to share, so you can explain to the other person. Make sure the employee understands the aim of the conversation is to support their success in the longer term.

Show Empathy

Put yourself in the place of the other person. Think about what the experience might feel like from their side. Think about a time when you were on the receiving end of a difficult conversation. How did you feel? Keep that in mind throughout the conversation, but don’t back down from the message you’re trying to deliver.

Accurate Information

Ensure that any data or information you used to draw conclusions is accurate and relevant. Make sure you understand how the data or information was used to come to the conclusion that’s being shared. If information came from someone else, question its relevance and accuracy before relying on it. Don’t dive into difficult conversations without making sure all your facts are straight.

Show Respect

Don’t be condescending, aggressive or overly critical. Explain that the ultimate aim of the conversation is to help, even if it doesn’t seem like it in the moment. Make sure that also comes across in your tone and body language. Don't let the conversation become an argument. If it’s heading that way, suggest taking a break so both sides can calm down.

Minimise Surprises

Mentally rehearse scenarios that might come up so you will be more prepared for whatever comes up. Rehearsing reduces surprises. The less surprise you encounter the calmer you will be. Don’t expect a conversation to go exactly as you imagined, but running through a variety of possibilities ahead of time, will help prepare you to handle whatever does come up.

Calm Is Key

Before you start the actual conversation, take some deep breaths to calm yourself. If you start to become agitated as the conversation progresses, breathe deeply to calm yourself. If you stay calm, the person you are talking to will be calmer too. Allow the employee to ‘vent’ after you’ve delivered the message. Don’t take anything they say at this point personally. Don’t back down or weaken your message because they become upset or angry.


Reflect after each one on how you could improve next time. The better you become at holding them, the less stressful they will feel.

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