Difficult Conversations

What do we mean by difficult conversations?

These can include redundancy, change, personal issues or concerns, poor performance, inappropriate behaviour or absence management to name a few.

What makes these conversations difficult?

Each one has its unique reasons, but there are often common reasons why all of these are difficult.  These common reasons include:

  • Human nature – I always try to avoid conflict
  • Embarrassment – I don’t like awkward situations
  • It might all go wrong – I could end up with a grievance or worse
  • It might become emotional – I can’t deal with  tears
  • It will take too long – Isn’t it HR or someone else’s job anyway?

What can go wrong?

No matter how well you prepare for the difficult conversation, the message can still be very hard to receive.  Not handling the meeting professionally or effectively increases the likelihood of a negative outcome, it also reflects badly on the organisation as a whole.

When things start to go wrong there may be a grievance, allegations of discrimination, or worse still, the employee goes sick or brings a claim of constructive dismissal.

As much as the manager prepares there are two parties in any conversation, both need to play their part to make the conversation effective.

The receiver of the information may still not respond well even if the manager handles the meeting perfectly.  There can be a whole host of unknown factors that can impact how the information is received such as personal issues, being distracted or unwell.

How do I ensure my message is heard and accepted?

A ‘coaching-style’ conversation can be helpful:

  • asking open questions to build rapport
  • listening intently
  • responding to answers
  • para-phrasing,  and
  • adapting to the situation.

This will ensure that a level of trust is developed which is more likely to lead to mutual objectives being defined and commitment to take whatever action is agreed upon.

How can I reduce the risk of things going wrong?

To minimise the risk of everything going pear-shaped, following a structure[i] can help:

  • Set up the meeting appropriately to minimise interruptions or distractions
  • Be clear about the purpose of the conversation, stating the issues and giving evidence explaining the impact on the individual, team or business
  • Instil a level of trust with the other participant by asking questions to understand how the other views the situation, avoiding accusations or being overly polite
  • Ensure there is a two way conversation by using open questions then listening to responses with an open mind, not jumping to conclusions
  • Gain commitment to actions  to deal with the issue
  • Document the conversation


Deal with matters as they arise, don’t leave until they become a problem

Approach issues on an informal basis first

Prepare well, gather evidence, articulate key points, devise questions & responses

Ensure you document the conversation in case matters are not concluded

Be prepared for the unexpected!

If you feel that it would be useful to get advice before you tackle your particular difficult conversation contact Jane Green-Armytage on 07977 932551 or jane@athenaprofessional.co.uk.

[i] ACAS guide on challenging conversations and how to manage them