Build great Teams – People management

Difficult Conversations – How To Manage Them

Difficult Conversations – How To Manage Them

Difficult conversations are never easy. There are some things you can do to make them easier. Prepare in advance. This allows you to be mentally ready. It lets you organise your thoughts and double check your facts before you begin. Mentally rehearse scenarios that might come up to reduce surprises.

What Are Difficult Conversations?

What are difficult conversations? Difficult conversations are conversations where you have to manage emotions and sensitive information. They typically arise when dealing with poor performance, poor behaviour, complaints, personality clashes or when dealing with someone’s personal problems. In all these situations, the person you are talking to will probably not like what they are hearing. They may become angry or upset. They may take it personally or they may blame you personally for the situation.

Difficult conversations, as their name suggests, are not easy. As a manager you will encounter them more often that you might like. Being able to handle difficult conversations well is a vital part of being a good manager. Making sure you engage in difficult conversations will help your employees understand where they need to improve. Avoiding difficult conversations will ultimately not help you or your team.

Preparation Is Key

To ensure the message you need to deliver is delivered fairly, prepare well. Make sure you separate opinion from conclusions based on data and information. Understand how you reached the conclusions you reached, so you can explain. Make sure the employee understands the aim is to support their success in the longer term. An article from 2015 in Harvard Business Review gives some advice on how to build a company culture where holding difficult conversations is not hard.


Put yourself in the place of the other person. Think about what the experience might feel like from their side. Deliver your message without destroying the person on the receiving end. You ultimate goal is to help them. Think about a time when you were on the receiving end of a difficult conversation. How did you feel? Prepare by developing empathy for the situation. Keep that in mind throughout the conversation.

Accurate Information

Ensure that any data or information used to draw conclusions is accurate and relevant. Make sure you understand how the data or information was used to come to the conclusion that’s being shared. If information came from someone else, question its relevance and accuracy before relying on it. Don’t dive into difficult conversations without making sure all your facts are straight.


Respect the person you are talking to. Don’t be condescending, aggressive or overly critical. Explain that the ultimate aim of the conversation is to help, even if it doesn’t seem like it in the moment. Make sure that also comes across in your tone and body language. Don’t let the conversation become an argument. If the conversation becomes emotionally charged, here are some tips to help you get the conversation back on track. If you can’t get it back on track, suggest taking a break so both sides can calm down.

Minimise Surprises

Mentally rehearse scenarios that might come up. You won’t think of everything, but the more ‘practice’ conversations you have before the real conversation, the more prepared you will be for whatever comes up. Rehearsing reduces surprises. The less surprise you encounter the calmer you will be. Don’t expect a conversation to go exactly as you imagined. Life isn’t that straightforward. Running through a variety of possibilities ahead of time, however, will help prepare you to handle whatever does come up.

Calm Is Key

Before you start, take some deep breaths to calm yourself. Notice how you react as the conversation progresses. If you start to become agitated, breathe deeply to calm yourself. If you stay calm, the person you are talking to will be calmer too. Allow the employee to ‘vent’ after you’ve delivered the message. Don’t take anything they say at this point personally. Let them take some time to consider what’s been said. You can reconvene after they’ve had time to digest the message you’ve delivered. Don’t back down or weaken your message because they become upset or angry.

Difficult conversations are never easy. If you prepare, rehearse, empathise, show respect and stay calm you should be able to make it an easier conversation. The more difficult conversations you have, and the more you reflect after each one on how you could improve next time, the better you will be at conducting them. The better you become, the less stressful they will feel.

My Question To You

What sort of conversations do you dread? How do you prepare for them? How do you feel you conduct yourself when holding a difficult conversation? If this is something you would like to discuss or would like some help with, contact me at You can also buy my book Accelerate to Team Success which is available as a paperback or on Kindle.


About the Author:

Nikki Faulkner photo Dr Nikki Faulkner founded Mulberry Bush Consulting to work with business leaders and their teams to make the 'People' side of their business as effective as possible. Mulberry Bush Consulting's specialty is helping small businesses who are new to having employees and helping businesses who are growing rapidly and increasing their employee-base at a rate that is creating a significant challenge.

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