Insight: How to have difficult conversations.
Updated: Nov 10
Leaders and managers have to have difficult conversations all the time.
Below our founder, Lee, shares his top tips for having difficult conversations at work.
Comments, thoughts and feedback welcome!
Last week saw a UK Government reshuffle which, no doubt, meant some difficult conversations. Leaders and managers have to have difficult conversations all the time, but what’s the best way to go about it? Here's five tips for having better difficult conversations:
1. Seize early opportunities.
Often, the bigger the problem the more difficult the conversation. So seize the early moments to raise issues - like underperformance - before they become bigger problems. Even if it doesn’t work, it prepares them for conversations to come.
2. Plan what you're going to say.
Both parties can get flustered in a difficult conversation and things could get missed. So plan what you’re going to say, with notes if necessary. This helps make sure you have explained the issue thoroughly from your point of view.
3. Don't waste time - get down to it.
We often like to give feedback as a “sandwich” - positive, constructive, positive. This has its place, but in serious conversations it can be misleading for the employee. Often, the best thing to do is just set out your case clearly.
4. Allow feedback, but be objective.
It’s likely the employee is going to reply and share their perspective. Allow it and take your time to make sure you fully understand their view before responding. Make sure you listen and respond in a way that is fair and objective.
5. Focus on the future.
Except for in the worst case scenarios (e.g. gross misconduct) negative feedback isn't the end of the story. Pivot to focus on the future, such as how to avoid the difficult situation arising again and support you can offer.
Not only will this keep things moving forward and focused, it’s both more productive than dwelling on the past and the right thing to do. Difficult conversations often need to happen, but our focus should usually be on addressing the cause and improving for the future.
These aren’t the only ways to handle difficult conversations and different situations will often require their own approach. But the above five tips will help you to make sure difficult conversations are conducted professionally.