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Preparing for difficult conversations

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As professional mediators, the PSW HR Solutions team are often asked by clients for advice about how to handle difficult conversations in the workplace.  

It is a predictable part of working life that we will need to have difficult conversations with clients, staff and stakeholders at some point. Many managers rely on their position to ‘manage’ people rather than developing the skills to lead through engagement and the ability to influence. 

Proactively managing difficult conversations can be a litmus test for many people in the workplace.  Unfortunately, many people find the process intimidating and go to great lengths to avoid a personal conversation.  Alternatively, a clumsy response can inflame the potential conflict which makes the situation even more uncomfortable for everyone!

When handled well, difficult conversations can be a good thing.  

They create opportunities for people to find common ground, confirm expectations around behaviour and performance and create improved understanding. Open and personal communication allows ongoing organisational problems/ festering issues that often affect others in the workplace to be positively managed. Confident management of challenging conversations can be the catalyst for new or improved workplace practices and processes being implemented. They may even create the space for new perspectives to be considered and/or result in a change in management direction or thinking.

So how do you get from the ‘Houston, we have a problem’ stage to sustainable positive outcomes? 

A great place to start is with your preparation and planning skills. Here are our top tips to improve your confidence in managing even the hardest workplace conversations:

1.  Prepare before the discussion. Consider time, date and place. Your goal is to progress the situation positively, not make it worse. Reflect on what the key points of the discussion need to be so you can stay focused and don’t get side-tracked or forget important things you need to mention.  The location can be critical in platforming positive outcomes – where is the best location to raise contentious issues?

2.  Do your research to ensure the information you intend to provide is accurate. Distinguish between opinions, hearsay and facts. Don’t make assumptions about the other person’s motives or intentions – and don’t assume that they will be able to see things from your point of view.

3.  Be clear in your own mind about what you want to achieve from the conversation.  Are you just trying to raise the other person’s awareness of a difficult issue or aiming for a change in work performance, personal attitude or behaviour?  Try to summarise your goal/s in two or three short sentences. What outcome from the discussion would you consider to be a satisfactory result? Can it be measured. If so, how?

4.  What will your opening statement be? This could set the tone for the entire conversation so think about it carefully. Mentally rehearse what you want to say in your mind. Picture yourself calmly outlining what the issues and impacts are for the individual concerned, the team, and the workplace as a whole. Can you think of a way to start and finish on a positive and supporting note? 

5.  How would you feel if you were on the receiving end of the information that you will provide? Put yourself in the other person’s shoes. Would you feel fear, embarrassment, anger or shame?  Anticipate and prepare for the person to ‘vent’ or become emotional.  Anticipate the range of reactions and plan for those responses.

5.  Focus on your communication skills – verbal, non verbal and active listening skills. Keep the language around the discussion as objective and unemotional as possible. Your capacity to communicate assertively and confidently will be a key factor in your ability to manage difficult conversations positively. 

6.  Consider what your role may have been in the situation. Don’t just rely on your own judgement.  Ask a trusted colleague for their perspective. You may not be fully aware how your own actions or words have influenced the behaviour, attitude or decisions of others.  If, on reflection, you feel you may be at fault in some way, be prepared to be honest and open about your part in the matter.

7.  Show respect for the other person. Don’t ambush them with an unexpected meeting or tip-toe around the subject in fear of an imminent explosion. Be courageous and clearly articulate the reason for needing to have the conversation, i.e. be specific about the issue/s you want to talk about.  Book an agreed date and time to have the discussion. Most people appreciate a direct approach and authenticity far more than side-steps and false camaraderie.

8.  Be prepared to allow the other person to help come up with a solution or next steps forward.  This will show that you are listening, being open and flexible.  It may also mean the other party is more likely to respect and abide by whatever actions are agreed upon as a result of the discussion.

If you would like to speak to the PSW HR Solutions team about working with your management and leadership teams on how to handle the difficult conversations, please get in touch.

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