Tackling Difficult Conversations In The Workplace

Tackling Difficult Conversations In The Workplace

 As much as we would all like to bypass them throughout our career, difficult conversations in the workplace are inevitable. Some are better at dealing with conflict than others, however none of us enjoy the process of talking through issues with colleagues. Within the workplace, difficult conversations occur in a range of scenarios – from firing an employee, to employee reviews and asking for a pay rise. As a manager, handing a difficult conversation requires not only skill and empathy, but also a great deal of courage. The following points highlight the key areas that should be considered before having the conversation, and why it is important to take them into consideration.

Don’t avoid it

English philosopher Theodore Zeldin once said ‘A successful conversation doesn’t just reshuffle the cards, it creates new cards’. Avoiding difficult conversations in the workplace not only creates increased stress and unhappiness, it also prevents the issues from being resolved. We can all admit that ignoring problems rarely leads to them being fixed – putting off the discussion will just allow them to stew, and in come cases worsen. Depending on the issue, the lead up to the conversation is often worse than the discussion itself, so waiting before discussing it will only create further unwanted stress.

Understand each conversation is different

All difficult conversations in the workplace must be approached differently with an understanding of who you are talking to and their individual personalities. You should try to tailor your tone based on how the person handles criticism, feedback or bad news, and approach it with as much sensitivity as possible.

Be clear about the issue 

Before you go into the meeting, ensue you are clear on exactly what you wish to say, and what you would like to gain from the conversation. Try to understand how the conversation will affect the other party, and how they may take the news or feedback. Adequate preparation will help you to articulate your message better, and help you be prepared to answer any unexpected questions that could come your way. If you aren’t prepared for your discussion, you are at the risk of going off on a tangent. Throughout the entire conversation, try to focus on the issue, and the objectives you wish to gain from it.

Manage emotions

Although in business it is common to ask people to ‘leave their emotions at the door’, often emotions can get involved during difficult conversations in the workplace. When either party is shocked to hear the news, or perhaps upset, emotions such as anger and sadness can easily develop. As the person initiating the conversation, have a think about the types of emotions that the other party will feel during your chat. You want to do your very best to eliminate any anger or distress from the conversation, and managing these emotions from the beginning will affect the end result of your discussion. It is also important to remember that you should not raise your voice, and avoid getting emotional yourself.

Remain professional 

Maintaining professionalism refers to a number of key areas including those such as managing emotions above, but also being ethical and keeping the conversation confidential. In most cases, both parties will want the information discussed in the meeting to stay in the meeting room, and it is important to respect that. Professionalism also includes remaining ethical and not making the discussion a personal attack on the individual, as well as using appropriate language including no profanity.

Choose the right location

A neutral location such as a meeting room is likely to be the best place for difficult conversations in the workplace. A location such as a cafe generally means that you will be there for a longer period as food or drink is involved. A conversation that may only take ten minutes is then drawn out for an hour as you finish your meal or coffee. Alternatively, meeting in an office automatically puts the manager in a position of power due to the desk and structure of a personal office. A meeting place such as a meeting room allows individuals to sit around a table with equal status and talk honestly.


Listening is something we would all love to do more of, but the problem is when we have an opinion on a certain topic, it is often difficult to truly listen and be willing to change your views. Taking the time to listen to the other side of the discussion may actually be very beneficial to you. You may learn something you were unaware of, and realise that your interpretation is not necessarily correct. If you allow yourself to go into the discussion with the intent to both listen and share your concerns, it will be much more productive for both parties.

What do you think? 

How have you approached difficult conversations in the workplace previously? I would love to hear of your tactics and if I can add anything to my list above. Alternatively, have you experienced any moments which demonstrate how ‘not to’ approach the situation? Please comment below and share your experiences.

This article was written by Laura Hutton on behalf of the Australian Institute of Business. All opinions are that of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of AIB. 


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