3 simple steps for managing difficult conversations

What do we mean by difficult conversations?

This includes a whole host of conversations.  Some of the more tricky ones include redundancy, change, personal issues or concerns, poor performance, inappropriate behaviour or absence management. Often these revolve around issues relating to behaviour or attitude.

Why are these conversations difficult?

Each one has its unique reasons, but there are often common reasons why we find all of these 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 someone else’s job anyway?

Our 3 step guide will help you to increase the chance of the conversation resulting in an outcome that results in a change in behaviour or attitude

STEP 1 – Understand yourself

Knowing how you tend to react when in an uncomfortable position is a great starting point.  The more you are aware of your reactions and the impact of those reactions on others, the more able you become to adapt your behaviour in the moment.

Psychometric tools can be very helpful to give you an insight into your preferred behaviours both in everyday situations and under stress.  If you have not completed one of these recently we would recommend downloading the FREE Lumina Splash App and completing a quick speed read to give you an insight into your preferences.

Alternatively ask some trusted colleagues for feedback on your impact, particularly when you are under pressure, stressed or uncomfortable.

With this increased self awareness you can begin to make choices around how you behave and how you approach the conversation.

STEP 2 – Prepare

A ‘coaching-style’ conversation is very helpful:

  • ask open questions to build rapport
  • listen intently
  • respond to questions
  • para-phrasing, and
  • adapting your approach 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.

Following a structure[i] can also 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

STEP 3 – Manage yourself

Considering your approach and having a structure can help enormously, however, how you manage yourself, in the moment, can make or break the success of the conversation.

Begin with the end in mind.

Be clear about the outcome you want from the conversation.  Consider this outcome by stepping into the other persons shoes.  This will enable you to frame the conversation using their map of the world.  Identify what is in it for them to agree to the change.

By being clear on the outcome you want from the conversation you are more able to control your reactions to events as they arise.


Following our 3 step approach will set you up for a productive conversation.

Practise out loud what you want to say and how you want to say it.  You will not use the exact words in the actual conversation, but speaking out loud allows you to filter your thoughts honing down the key messages you want to convey.

Don’t delay unnecessarily.  The longer you leave these conversations the more difficult they become.  Act promptly to nip issues in the bud.

Finally, always, always, always ensure you document the conversation.

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