manage difficult conversations

Whether you are engaging with a difficult colleague, reviewing someone’s performance or issuing a caution, difficult conversations are an inescapable aspect of a leader’s responsibility. No matter the level of experience, managers of all levels will find them challenging. Many may even delegate them for fear of mishandling them.

However, difficult conversations are however one of the tasks which should never be delegated as delegating them is merely an avoidance tactic, which risks showing you in a bad light. Think of it this way: a difficult conversation is not just a skill to be learned, it is an act of courage on your part. A determination to master awkward and challenging conversations is one of the ‘hallmarks’ of a leader rather than a mere manager.

There might be a time when you have to take someone aside to correct behaviour that has affected the team. Perhaps an individual is consistently late in meeting deadlines or has allowed their work to fall below par. In such cases, it falls to the manager to step-up and become the leader who challenges poor standards before they become the norm.

Here are 5 guidelines to master a difficult conversation with a member of your team:

1 familiarise yourself with procedure

Prepare what it is you want to say. The more formal the nature of the conversation, the more it is likely to follow a set procedure. Find out your facts and gather evidence. If helpful, seek advice from more experienced parties with regards to their experience and suggestions.

2 state your position

As in step 1 above, your language may very well be guided by procedure. State the reason for the conversation taking place. If relevant, explain which rules have been transgressed and which standards of performance and behavior are normally expected.

3 acknowledge the opposing perspective.

Allow the other party to respond in detail without rushing them. Seek to understand what the person is saying by repeating back to them what they have said in their exact words. Seek acknowledgement that they feel understood. Using the other’s language expedites this process.

4 agree an outcome compassionately

Once again, referring to step 1, the outcome of a difficult conversation may be predetermined, particularly where policy necessitates a particular response. Nonetheless, as a manager you have the means and power to deliver your decision in a sensitive and compassionate manner.

5 end on a positive note

Ask what you can do for the other party. For instance, if someone is being sanctioned, you could ask whether you can help them by speaking to HR. If someone is being laid-off, you could ask them whether you can write a recommendation. Make every attempt to keep the relationship intact.


Remember, there are many ‘touch points’ or conversations, which you as a manager may have with your team, your manager or your peers. As a general rule, the more positive the nature of the conversation, the less prescriptive it is likely to be.

On the other hand, the more ‘corrective’ or ‘negative’ the nature of the conversation, the more likely it is that a set procedure must be understood and followed meticulously by you.

Nonetheless, it is inadvisable to try and ‘script’ what it is that you wish to say, ‘word for word’. It is best to keep your conversation flexible whilst rehearing a range of possible responses. Your language must be simple, unambiguous, direct and neutral.


managing people for new managers

New managers frequently struggle with the new responsibilities of managing a team. They may even revert to doing their old job as this is what they know best.

My workshop, manage! shows new managers how to hold difficult conversations, give feedback, understand their own management style, coach their team, build a cohesive team and delegate effectively.

This workshop is equally beneficial to people who currently have responsibility for a team of people and need to brush-up on essential skills. Hands-on exercises and role-plays can be customised to your organisation’s needs in order to make learning real and tangible.

Author: Mark
Hi! Did you enjoy this content? I can help business such as yours to leverage the very best from your people through world-class training and coaching. Just call me on +44 7743 912 492.

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