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  • Writer's pictureJudith Moeckell

Difficult Conversations: why they're important & how to have them

Updated: May 13, 2022

We held a series of seminars in early 2022 looking into why difficult conversations are often a bug bear for employers and line managers, but why it’s so important to have them with your workforce. The sessions were so popular we decided to lay out what we covered, here.

Why not just avoid difficult conversations?

  • They help build durable relationships and a strong sense of trust

  • Companies that hold these talks have a track record of surviving

  • They are often simply required when things in the company are changing and adapting

Why do we hate challenging conversations?

  • The brain tries to conserve energy. Difficult conversations consume energy because most people feel empathy or compassion for the other person

  • The brain needs to think of responses to rebuttals, anger, embarrassment, sadness - emotions that will often arise during these tricky conversations

  • Nearly all people also want to be liked so avoid confrontation. People are usually reluctant to open a difficult conversation out of fear of the consequences

Examples of scenarios that might bring about these conversations:

  • Performance concerns

  • Behaviour concerns

  • Personal hygiene issues

  • Remuneration

  • Staff moves

  • Redundancy/exits

  • Development

  • Status (promotion, demotion, job title, office, desk…)

Four practical steps to take when approaching a difficult conversation:





PREPARING: what to think about

  • Who is the right person to have the conversation?

  • What’s the purpose of the conversation?

  • What’s the right timing? Make sure all parties are available

  • Collect the facts

  • Anticipate the emotions in the room, and how to keep yourself in control

  • Inform your own manager and HR (who'll be able to check company policies)

  • Outline an action plan: what happens next

PLANNING: the logistics

  • Make sure the location is private, and face to face if possible

  • Allow sufficient time to have the conversation (you’re also likely to need time to recover afterwards)

  • How formal do you want the room layout to be?

  • Think through what you want to say, and how the other person may respond

  • What types of questions will you ask - open, closed, or probing

  • Think through what a successful conclusion looks like

PROCESS: Having the conversation

  • State your intention

  • Recognise & highlight positives

  • Seek your team member’s input

  • Ask questions

  • Listen carefully

  • Check the information/objectives are still correct

POST: After the conversation

  • Record what was discussed & agreed

  • Provide agreed follow up support

  • Have regular follow up progress meetings conversations

How to encourage a team culture of challenging conversations

  • Encourage having the conversations sooner rather than later

  • Remember that sometimes, you don’t have to be liked

  • There is a simple way to start: ‘I see that X and Y are happening – why is that?’ Let the other person do most of the talking

  • Frame the conversation in a way as to solve an issue rather than blame someone

  • Being as direct as you can be will usually resolve the situation

  • Remind leaders that the outcome is almost always better than they expect

  • Be available for practice

  • Dig a ditch when it’s not raining!

Examples of constructive feedback

Don’t say: ‘You came across as dominating’

Do say: ‘I appreciate your ideas. It’s a shame this time it didn’t go to plan. Let's discuss what didn’t work & how we can learn for the future’

Don’t say: ‘You were a loudmouth in the meeting’

Do say: ‘You may have got more of the information you needed if you had asked for opinions & comments’

Don’t say: ‘If you had listened this would have worked out’

Do say: ‘I value your ideas, and know you were excited to talk. It’s important to also give space to others so that we can learn from their ideas too’

Giving Feedback: hints & tips

  • Include praise as well as areas to improve

  • Focus on observable behaviour, not assumptions

  • Keep feedback factual and specific - it should be your own observations, not those of a third party

  • Use reinforcing feedback: acknowledge good practices & the positive

  • Developmental feedback: use to encourage a change or improvement in a situation or behaviours

  • Make sure it’s given in the right environment: in a space of trust

  • Provide recommendations & actions


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