Skip to main content

When you’re managing employees there will be times where you need to have a conversation with someone that isn’t something you want to do. Our hassle-free guide to handling difficult conversations can help you through these situations.

What is a difficult conversation?

Is it a conversation about:

  • Personal hygiene;
  • Feedback for improvement;
  • Refusing a reasonable request;
  • Conduct issues; or
  • Performance issues?

It might not be as straightforward as you think. It could be that you need to have a perfectly reasonable conversation with someone, but due to their attitude it can cause the topic to become difficult to discuss.

There are a lot of areas that can cause conflict. Every person has a different idea of what is acceptable – there might be something that you see as a big “no, no”, but someone else’s life experience may mean they feel this course of action is acceptable.

So, what potentially makes it difficult?

Confidence – how confident you feel about having these conversations can make them feel more daunting or difficult than they are.  This is about what’s going on in your head. The person you are speaking to doesn’t know that you’re not confident unless you show them. They don’t know that you’re worrying

Embarrassingeveryone has a different definition of what’s embarrassing and this changes throughout your life. Your focus needs to be on the reason you are having the conversation, which is about the impact on the business if things don’t change. Remember that you are also helping them in the long run, because you have their best interests at heart

Previous experience this can be a positive or a negative. But if you’re finding a conversation challenging it may be to do with the last time you had a similar conversation. The key is to review and reflect on the way you handled it last time. This is your chance to have a go at getting it right.

Lack of experience the only way to get experience is to have a go. You can read all the books and articles you want on doing this but there is no substitute to just doing it. Like when you’re learning to drive, completing your theory test doesn’t mean you know how to drive a car – you have to get behind the wheel. You can take a more experienced colleague with you for support if you need to.

Lack of evidence always ensure that you have evidence to support what you are talking to them about. Don’t just go in and say something is not right, but not be able to back it up with real examples. E.g. wanting to tell an employee that they are negative but being unable to give them an example of a time when they were.

What ifs what if the world ends tomorrow? What if you won the lottery? What if your hands were where your feet are? It takes a lot of energy to think of all of these what ifs. Planning and preparation are key elements however don’t go too far trying to plan for every scenario.

How do I have this difficult conversation?

Be Direct – Get to the point and do it quickly. Beating around the bush with something like this isn’t going to help you. Don’t use things like the “feedback sandwich”. Surrounding your real message with other information will mask the point of the conversation and lessen the impact.

Be specific – Be honest and thorough. Fully clarify why you’re having this conversation with them. But make sure you give examples of the concerns you have. So, in this instance you may say something like “ I have seen a rise in the number of errors in the invoices that you are responsible for.  Three clients have called us to query their invoices and on checking they have been incorrectly invoiced. This reduces their confidence in us as well as being annoying for them and leads to a delay in receiving their payments and duplicating of the work to put it right”.

Plan the conversation – It’s not a conversation to have on the spur of the moment. Think about what it is that you want to say to them and if you were in their situation, what questions you would ask. The more prepared you are when you go into the meeting, the better it will go.

Watch your language – By this we don’t mean your p’ and q’s or even having your swear jar handy! While these things are appropriate, what we mean is be careful of the words that you are using during the conversation.  Avoid personal comments and words that may trigger an emotive response. For example, telling someone they don’t care about what they do may lead to them reacting emotionally and becoming defensive. It may be that this is how you feel as a result of what they have done but that’s about you and not the facts of the situation.

So, you need to outline the reason for the conversation, talk them through the outcome you would like to see and illustrate what positive outcomes actually look like. This will help them to understand it a bit better and, by thinking about the words you use, avoid emotional outbursts or other defensive behaviour.

Offer a solution – Think back to suggestion boxes. The theory behind it was good, but in reality, what you would get is “this is poor” but nothing else. If you don’t offer the employee a solution to the problem that you are highlighting with them, how do they know what improvements they need to make going forwards? Take the “suggestions box” and turn it into a “solution box”.

Depending on the individual you may be able to take a coaching approach and ask them what they could do differently going forward but it will depend on whether the individual is likely to be able to identify an alternative approach or if they genuinely don’t know how else to do it.

Manage your emotions – Keep your tone neutral and professional. Don’t let your emotions dictate the delivery. If you get emotional, they will too. To help you to manage your emotions, look at things from a factual perspective.

Be empathetic – While you need to be professional and factual, you do still need to be empathetic. Think about how they are going to feel. If they are struggling to process the information that you’ve given them, pause and allow them the time to compose themselves. If it’s a conversation about something like personal hygiene, while it’s difficult and probably embarrassing for both parties, remind them that you’re not doing this to be mean, you are doing this to help them.

Allow questions – Allow them to ask you questions. Sometimes, this helps them to process what has happened and it also allows you to clarify the details to them. If you don’t think they have understood what you’ve said, then you can ask questions to check their understanding.

Feedback methods

In the world of management, there are many models that you can use to structure your feedback. Every manager or HR professional that you speak to will have their own favourite model to use to give feedback. There’s no right or wrong in this case, as it will depend on the individual you’re speaking to and the reason for the conversation.

What you need to think about before deciding what feedback model you use to structure your conversation, is whether the model allows for specific information to be given and methods for improvements. There’s nothing worse than highlighting a problem to someone but not telling them what you want them to do going forward or how they can put things right.

Need some advice on handling difficult conversations?

Contact us at or give us a call on 03300 414589

Need our help?

Let’s get talking!

Contact Us