How to handle difficult conversations effectively

Most managers will have to deal with conversations that are challenging and difficult to handle. They may feel out of their depth and ill equipped to manage the situation at various points – before, during and after.

Instigating a difficult conversation can be daunting and it’s a natural tendency to avoid and put off planning or even having these types of conversations.

However, scenarios such as addressing poor performance, bullying behaviour, conflicts with other members of the team, dealing with sensitive personal issues or having to tell an employee their position is at risk of redundancy can unfortunately be part and parcel of a manager’s role.

Don’t put off difficult conversations

It’s natural to want to put off difficult conversations such as these as they often involve quite complex and intense emotions. Fears around how people will react as well as whether you are able to handle your own emotions during a stressful and tense conversation are real worries for many managers.

But handling a challenging conversation needn’t be difficult. If you adopt the right approach and mindset, prepare in advance and are equipped with the right skills and behaviour you will be able to maximise your ability to steer the conversation effectively and ensure the best possible outcome for both parties involved.

Here are our 4 top recommendations for how to handle difficult conversations effectively …

Understand your own fears

We are all human after all and it’s natural to feel slightly worried about how the other person may react to bad news. No one likes being called out especially in a work situation, they may be upset, argumentative or just very angry. But if you have prepared well in advance on how you will react in these situations you’ll be in a better position to reduce emotions escalating and getting the best outcome possible.

Reframe the conversation

If you approach the conversation with dread, knowing that the worst reaction is inevitable, you will affect how you react and will influence the eventual outcome. Keep an open mind and consider the fact that the person you are talking to may welcome the chance to have a conversation to address the problem in question.  Thinking of your conversation as a constructive one that helps both the employee as well as the organisation is a really great mindset to have.

Manage your emotional state

Don’t take things personally, more often than not in these types of difficult conversation people may get emotional. However, it’s your responsibility as a manager to control your own emotions and act appropriately for the situation. Avoid emotional language yourself, listen to their side of the story and give them time and space to consider what they are saying. People often don’t respond as their best selves when challenged or upset. At all times keep your approach professional and evidence based.

Plan the exchange

The better your plan for your difficult conversation the greater the chance of a mutually successful outcome. Come prepared with evidence to support your findings, ensure your organisation has policies in place to support the findings and agreements going forward, and take time to get your own behaviour and approach the best it can be.

Practice, practice, practice

You don’t need a script in place but preparing in advance the types of questions and responses that are likely to occur, as well as possible emotional outbursts and how you can react will be really useful. It will ensure that you are as best prepared as possible to handle any difficulties that may happen. Plus it will also boost your own confidence in handling difficult situations now and in the future.

Being able and confident in your ability to deal with difficult conversations in the workplace rather than letting the situation fester and get worse over time. Knowing that you have the right set of tools, a great mindset and ability to handle any difficult conversation effectively is a great skill set for any manager.

Need more help with Handling Difficult Conversations?

Our great module Handle Difficult Conversations provides a range of effective strategies and practical planning techniques to empower participants to prepare properly for a difficult conversation and understand how they can achieve more successful outcomes.

Participants learn how to:

  • Deal with anger and conflict
  • Say no with confidence and integrity
  • Deliver difficult feedback with confidence and professionalism
  • Be more assertive
  • Negotiate with difficult colleagues
  • Manage difficult or challenging relationships
  • And much more!

Discover more about our unique approach to behaviour change below …