How to have those difficult conversations you avoid


It’s weighing on your mind, disrupting your thoughts, pulling you down. You know that you got to have that conversation. But you don’t want to.

You are not sure how the other person will react and even more importantly how you will react. You are hoping that someone else might address it, that it might go away, get better…but deep down you know that you are going to have to find the courage to have that conversation.

Having the courage to have difficult conversations was the topic of my talk at the Putting People First conference last week. Everyone in the room could recount having a conversation that was ‘difficult’.

Our workplaces and world revolves around conversations. They are at heart of what we do and play a crucial role in organisational effectiveness. Yet, having some conversations can be difficult for a number of reasons:

  • An emotional or sensitive subject
  • Role / status – for example someone senior to you
  • Personality trait – aggressive, domineering, nervous, timid
  • Perceived response / reaction of the other person
  • Opinions, perceptions differ
  • Feels uncomfortable / threatened
  • Not wanting to hurt or upset the other person
  • Resulting consequences such as loss of trust

A CIPD survey found that 4 in 10 UK employees (38%) report some form of interpersonal conflict at work with  the single most common cause being differences in personality or styles of working

Addressing poor performance, unprofessional behaviour, challenging senior staff, personal hygiene, absence and lateness, target setting, redundancy… are topics that are sensitive and emotional and classed as difficult.

The impact of delaying or not having a difficult conversation can result in the issue continuing or escalating resulting in poor performance, decreased capacity to perform, loss of work satisfaction, negative emotions, missed targets, stress and a culture where people are afraid to speak up and hold each other to account.

The best way to have such conversations is to have them as soon as possible and tackle them before they fester within you.

I can recall one of my clients, Sally, voicing how an incident, a year ago, between herself and one of her colleagues, Mike,  had impacted on her, her confidence and her relationship with him. Due to promotion, she was now working much closer with Mike and that past incident continues to haunt and affect her.

Sally made the decision to have an open and honest conversation with Mike. She commented, “I found it a difficult thing to do, had many sleepless nights, but felt relief afterwards. I think that if I hadn’t spoken out, there would have been limitations to our working relationship, trust, confidence and this would have impacted my performance.

Some tips for having those conversations you don’t want to have:

 – Use the direct approach, be upfront ,authentic and respectful“Pete, I would like to have a chat with about what happened at the meeting this morning when….Let’s discuss this afternoon at X time

– Open the conversation gently: “I was surprised about what I witnessed earlier. Your behaviour and attitude is out character and unexpected”

– Be clear, direct and focus on the behaviour that you would like to address and not the person. “You were rude and disrespectful to Sue and missed some important figures in your presentation”

– Invite the other person to share his perspectives: ” I would like to hear your take on this and on what happened…”

– Listen with an open and inquiring mind and try to put your assumptions, judgement aside. Acknowledge what you have heard and understood through your body language, posture, eye contact.

– Seek  his assessment of the impact of their behaviour or actions

– Openly address tactics such as silence, evasiveness… label the behaviour that you are observing and feed it back, “I don’t know how to interpret your silence.”

– Acknowledge feelings. Manage your emotions, posture, body language, tone of voice and stay in adult mode – objective, reasoned, non threatening, use of “I”..

– Check for mutual understanding by asking questions, reflecting, summarising and paraphrasing what you have heard.Slow the pace of the conversation down, taking time to listen and make use of silence.

– Invite the other person to work with you to make things better. Find common ground between your point of view and your counterpart’s. Use insightful questions to help the person come up with solutions. Find ways to be constructive by suggesting other solutions or alternatives

– End with an action / output that you both agree to

– Reflect and learn 

Engage a trusted friend / colleague as a sounding board before hand if this helps. Avoid putting off uncomfortable conversations by having the courage to address them as soon as they arise.

How have you tackled difficult conversations? What tips/ strategies can you share?

Photo courtesy of Skarstedt Gallery


About verawoodhead

I'm an executive coach, leadership facilitator and learning & development consultant working with managers and leaders to develop the skills and behaviours to inspire performance and drive results; achieve promotion ; make successful career changes, be resilient and thrive at work. Within organisations, I help to facilitate better conversations, design learning interventions which deliver practical and lasting solutions aligned to business strategy and goals. Connect with me on Twitter @verawoodhead
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