Difficult Conversations - Some Top Tips

Posted in : HR Updates on 16 July 2015
Angela Schettino
Think People Consulting
Issues covered:

For many of us (not least those of us who are people managers or in HR), the prospect of having ‘difficult conversations’ in the workplace can leave us wanting to run for the hills. 

Line managers, in particular, will often report feeling less than confident about how best to tackle breaking some unpopular news or to how to deal with the ‘disruptive’ employee whilst securing a positive outcome.  It is, in fact, quite a skill to tackle difficult conversations, perhaps one of the most coveted of the critical skills in the management toolbox and one which is being introduced into more core management development programmes (including Think People’s own DEL sponsored accredited ENGAGE programme and our various Management Excellence programmes). 

A great mentor of mine once told me during my graduate management training that ‘if you fail to prepare, prepare to fail’.  This advice has stayed with me and is as valuable today as it was then.  Becoming confident involves developing ‘hard’ skills associated with understanding legal implication and risk management, but perhaps the harder part is developing the ‘soft’ skills associated with the conversation itself. We share some of our top tips in handling difficult conversations with aplomb.  And it starts with great preparation.



Research the issue before the discussion and be able to provide evidence of the message that you will be imparting. For example, if the manager is giving feedback on poor performance, he or she should be ready to tell the employee about the effect that the performance has had.


Decide what the ideal outcome of the conversation would be, for example an improvement in performance, correction of misconduct or simply imparting news in a respectful and productive way. If you know the ideal outcome, you can make preparations to help achieve it.


Think carefully about the differences between your character and style and that of the other party to the discussion.  In order to achieve a better outcome, it is often useful to adapt your style of communication to assist with acceptance of the message. Does this person prefer some encouragement, do they prefer straightforward facts, do you need to spend more time than you would normally do ensuring the message is fully understood?

Frame of mind 

Think about your frame of mind before having a potentially difficult conversation. Always take a few moments to calm down if the conversation needs to be had after a frustrating incident. Never make a discussion personal. Concentrate on the issue, rather than the individual.


Prepare any materials that may be needed, including extra copies of documents for the employee.  If there is detailed information to review, ensure the other party to the discussion has had an oppornity to look at and consider the information.

Location and environment

A conflict resolution conversation should always be conducted in private so that neither party feels uncomfortable or outside of their comfort zone. Both parties should feel that they can speak freely. This will also ensure help protect organisation's duty of trust and confidence towards the employee.

Layout and timing

Think about a room layout which is conducive to non threatening and constructive talking.  Sitting behind a desk creates an immediate barrier and should be avoided but always take into account comfort zone and personal space requirement.


Set the right tone

Begin the conversation in a professional manner as this will encourage a professional attitude throughout the meeting and help to achieve a successful outcome. Beginning the conversation in a non-threatening manner will also encourage both parties to speak openly.

Set some ground rules

From the outset agree the parameters. Confidentiality, Respect for each other, allowing each other time to speak. Honesty.

State the issues clearly and put into context

To avoid misunderstanding, state clearly what the issue is and check understanding.

Demonstrate why the issue is important. For example, if the issue is redundancy, explain the business context, or, if the issue is the employee's misconduct, give examples of the impact that the employee's behaviour has had.

Give very specific examples and evidence 

This can be done by referring to dates, situations and documentary evidence. If the issue is the employee's conduct, managers should avoid referring to general ‘complaints’ but instead give specifics.

Avoid an attitude of blame: 

The issue needs to be addressed in a collaborative way try not to approach a conversation with an attitude of "line manager versus the employee", but with an attitude of "both versus the problem".

Avoid belittling the issue: 

The line manager's own fear of a difficult conversation could lead him or her to belittle the issue. The line manager should avoid phrases such as "it’s really not a big deal".

Body language: 

Be aware of your own body language so that it does not alienate. Adopt neutral body language by unfolding arms, speaking in a calm tone of voice at a moderate volume. Body language will often be mirrored by the other party.


Being listened to is empowering...

Taking the time to listen will help manager gather useful information about the issue. The line manager should prepare questions but must let the employee explain or react in his or her own time.

Do ask for the individual's view (in turn if two individuals).

Do use open questions such as "what is your view on that?"

Do listen to and acknowledge the employee’s point of view.

Do appreciate the value of silence. This allows the individual time to gather his or her thoughts.

Do ask if you have not understood what has been said, by saying, for example, "OK, I need to be clear about that, so can we go over it again".

Do summarise the main points of what the employee has said. This is useful as it shows that you have listened, helps to consolidate your thoughts and helps you to decide where the conversation should go next.

Do check that the employee has understood what you have said. For example, say "we need to finish up, it might be useful to go over what we've discussed...if you want to summarise first"


Having ascertained the ideal outcome of the conversation, an important step in securing a  positive outcome is to agree how it can be achieve

  • Agree the way forward together. This encourages joint ownership of the issue, which helps the employee to treat it seriously and take responsibility for resolving it.
  • Brainstorming will help the employee feel involved and is an easy way of comparing the positives and negatives of different solutions.
  • It is preferable to start with small steps. For example, if the employee is having difficulties getting along with a colleague, agreeing a small action first, such as an informal social event, should encourage further positive action.
  • If the issue requires action, the manager and employee should agree a deadline. Scheduling a date by which the action must be completed helps to focus minds. This could be coupled with the date for the next meeting to review the situation.
  • If the employee needs to improve, the employee and manager should agree how development or progress will be measured.
  • The employee may need support from the manager to resolve the issue and the manager needs to take this into account.
  • Once it has been agreed what the employee is going to do, the line manager should ask the employee to summarise this, which ensures that he or she has fully understood what is required and by when.

The manager should end the meeting by explaining that he or she wants the individual to succeed.


After the conversation, keep the momentum going. Achieving a successful outcome is an ongoing, building process. Failing to keep on top of the issue may undo all the good work and may leave you having to deal with the issue from the beginning. Monitor how the agreed actions are being implemented by the employee.

Check your own actions and ensure you have complied with your agreement, for example by providing support.

This article is correct at 19/10/2015

The information in this article is provided as part of Legal-Island's Employment Law Hub. We regret we are not able to respond to requests for specific legal or HR queries and recommend that professional advice is obtained before relying on information supplied anywhere within this article.

Angela Schettino
Think People Consulting

The main content of this article was provided by Angela Schettino. Contact telephone number is 028 9031 0450 or email Angela.Schettino@thinkpeople.co.uk

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