How to have a difficult conversation

Apr 27, 2022 | HR

If you find yourself wondering how to have a difficult conversation, you’re not alone. Actually though, the fact that you’re preparing to tackle it is a good thing! There is an emotional toll on us when we prepare to have difficult conversations and in fact many of us would rather use avoidance tactics. We would do almost anything to avoid having that difficult conversation and we’d even prefer to put up with a negative situation rather than tackle it!

What makes it difficult?

Ironically, the things that make a conversation difficult for us as the instigator are also usually the things that make the conversation difficult for the receiver.

Things like:

  • The topic;
  • A perception of “telling off”;
  • Our respective mindsets;
  • Reluctance to acknowledge an issue;
  • Emotional reactions – anger, defence, frustration;
  • Confidence levels.

One of the most challenging parts is dealing with the perception of not being liked. We’re all human after all and we want to be liked and respected. Sometimes as a Manager though, it’s not possible to be liked all the time and having difficult conversations means we also have to be comfortable with not being liked (hopefully temporarily!).

What are we afraid of?

  • Saying the wrong thing;
  • Heading into confrontation or conflict;
  • Ending up with an unpleasant atmosphere;
  • Being blamed;
  • Losing something we value like the working relationship or the person’s trust.

How to prepare for a difficult conversation

Get your motives right – make sure you know why you’re having the conversation in the first place and find the positive intention behind it. So if you need to speak to someone about their poor performance, your positive intention is to help them to improve.

Check in with your emotions – it’s normal and appropriate to feel emotion when responding to the actions of others; however you will most likely find that if you can work through the emotions and have your difficult conversation in a neutral mindset, it’s going to go better than if you go into the conversation with all those emotions still raw.

Gather the facts and identify your assumptions – always a good point for planning, particularly if you are investigating or trying to establish what really happened.

Be curious – prepare to ask questions to find out what you don’t already know or questions that might challenge your own assumptions.

For further advice, guidance or access to our training sessions on difficult conversations, get in touch.


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