Difficult conversations are never easy (the clue is in the word ‘’difficult’) but they can be especially challenging in the workplace. 

As HR professionals, we’re tasked with handling these delicate situations on a regular basis, but as a manager, this might not be such a common occurrence. 

Whether you’re dealing with an employee conflict or addressing a sensitive issue with a client, it’s important to approach the situation thoughtfully and with care. It’s essential to resist any temptation to avoid the topic or put off having the conversation as difficult situations rarely resolve themselves and any delay will often make the circumstances worse.

To help you navigate these tricky waters, we’ve compiled a list of five vital rules for handling difficult conversations.

Following these guidelines can help you to diffuse the situation and achieve the best possible outcome.

1 – Define The Purpose Of The Conversation

Conversations are an integral part of any organisation, providing the connection, spark and energy between managers and employees (or any other stakeholders for that matter.)

However, to be really effective, any conversation must have a purpose. 

What is the desired outcome?

What do you want to achieve as a result of the discussion? 

When you envisage a conversation is likely to be difficult, providing clarity on the purpose will help all parties involved understand what they need to do and how they should act, which results in better outcomes for everyone.

Handling Difficult Conversations In The Workplace

It might sound a bit over the top for certain situations, but whenever you’re not expecting it to be an easy conversation, preparing for it in this way will pay dividends as it will help you be crystal clear on why you’re talking about and what you hope to achieve – this will help the conversation stay on track.  

As a line manager, there could be a multitude of scenarios you might face, in terms of a difficult conversation with one of your team members. For example, not performing to your expectations, excessive level of sickness absence, conduct issues or a change in the workplace that might have an adverse effect on them, such as redundancy.

Ultimately, defining the purpose of work-related conversations ensures that all participants feel valued, respected and (hopefully) inspired by the discussion taking place. 

Consequently, this will lead to improved outcomes and increased staff motivation. Therefore, ultimately helping organisations meet their goals more effectively.

2 – Challenge Your Own Assumptions And Beliefs

In our lives, it is all too easy for us to get comfortable in the familiar patterns of our own assumptions and beliefs. However, if we are to remain open-minded and curious, it is critical that we challenge ourselves and question these ideas from time to time.

Taking a step back and looking at the situation with fresh eyes can lead to new perspectives that may just give us insight into problems that we’ve never before been able to unravel on our own.

Instead of simply relying on opinion and static data, take a holistic approach by engaging in conversations with people who have different points of view and actively researching objective facts. Only then can you truly assess all aspects of any issue and make well-informed decisions.

Embrace the opportunity to challenge your own assumptions and beliefs – not only is this the pathway towards growth, but seeing things from someone else’s perspective will also enhance your decision making and lead to easier problem resolution.

3 – Plan For The Difficult Conversation

Navigating a difficult conversation is never easy, but the best way to tackle such a discussion is with careful preparation, starting with being clear on the Purpose of the conversation, as outlined above.

Planning ahead of time helps to ensure that the conversation progresses smoothly and that all relevant points are addressed. Whilst these situations rarely go according to script, thinking through how the conversation might flow in advance will stand you in good stead.

First, set an appropriate time and place. Make sure both parties are comfortable with the chosen surroundings and have some privacy, to make sure there are no interruptions.

Next, make a list of key points that should be discussed during the conversation and practice delivery – this will do much to reduce anxiety, but also ensures you will have the vital points answered. Also consider any likely questions that may be asked, or responses and objections you’re likely to encounter. Thinking through these in advance will allow you to feel more in control of the conversation, rather than reacting or feeling ‘on the spot’.

Lastly, remember to remain respectful throughout and avoid blaming language for added frustration.

4 – Present Your Side Of The Story, But Don’t Forget About Theirs

When it comes to resolving conflicts and handling difficult conversations, one of the key strategies is to present your point, but also, not forget about theirs.

This can be beneficial for a variety of reasons, including helping you both feel more heard and understood by one another.

It’s important to recognise it requires at least two sides to exist in any disagreement, and while it’s important to take care of your own emotional needs, it’s equally important to be considerate of the other person’s feelings as well.

This means listening carefully to what they have to say without judgement or criticism, viewing things from their perspective, and being patient with them.

While presenting your side of the story is essential for productive communication, don’t forget about theirs – taking the time to listen and understand goes a long way in finding common ground and eventually coming to an agreement that works for everyone involved.

It’s really important that you manage expectations from the outset as this will ensure credibility and trust is built, both throughout and following the conversation. Don’t agree to anything you cannot deliver and don’t promise something that is unachievable as this will undo all your good work..

5 – Handle Your Reactions With Care

If you are delivering information which is likely to be unwelcome, it is important to handle your reactions with care.

Remaining composed and professional, even when emotions start rising, is a key skill for any leader looking to navigate difficult conversations successfully.

Angry outbursts, tears or stubborn silences are difficult to deal with and must be handled correctly. Then, once the information has been stated, it is important to address the situation that may have been caused.

This is a two-way process – it takes both parties to reach a resolution and take ownership of their reactions to move forward. Taking responsibility for how you react and manage your emotions during difficult conversations will help ensure a more composed outcome.

When handling difficult conversations in the workplace, taking the time to understand one another’s perspectives and calmly presenting our own, can help work towards common ground and an outcome that works for everyone.

If you would like any further advice and support on this subject. Do make sure to get in touch.