How to have difficult conversations at work

Difficult conversations – what are they?

You know the one – the tough talk you really know you should be having but you just keep putting off. It could be a poor performance review, news that someone’s budget has been cut, a project has been delayed or the ultimate – you have to let someone go.

Whatever the conversation, you’re avoiding it because you can’t bear the potential conflict or negative emotions it might cause and because you don’t really know how to do it well.

You’re not alone. A recent survey found that at any one time, eight out of ten employees are avoiding having difficult conversations at work, with four out of ten avoiding it for six months plus!

So why are they so difficult for us to have?

At the heart of the difficulty of tough conversations is our very basic human need to belong.

We are hard-wired to belong in order to survive – as a baby if we don’t belong to, and are loved by our family, we would actually die. So difficult conversations threaten our very survival as they bring up the possibility of rejection – either the possibility of the other person rejecting us because of what we are about to say, or the other person feeling rejected by us.

Within work life and culture there is a very real fear that having such a conversation will irreparably damage the working relationship and have a negative impact on our general working environment, and results.

If they’re so difficult, why bother?

Paradoxically, it’s the avoidance of them that actually creates the most damage – both to our working relationships, and our work culture at large.

I spoke to several senior leaders and HR directors about the importance of having difficult conversations and they cited resentments, silos, anger and frustration, relationship breakdowns, and a generalised lack of trust and psychological safety.

Amanda Gethin is the Global Talent Leader for the Consulting business at EY, one of the Big Four professional services firms with headquarters in the UK. EY’s Consulting business employs over 85,000 people globally and Amanda heads up its global talent strategy:

“The negative impacts of not having difficult conversations far outweigh the challenge of having them. We have a population of very bright employees, and they want to be treated with transparency and fairness. If this doesn’t happen and there isn’t an appropriate level of honesty, then trust is broken with that individual.

The impact goes beyond this one person though, with second and third order consequences that can be hugely damaging to team dynamics and work culture overall.

People who don’t get developmental feedback don’t maximise their potential and don’t get the personal and professional growth they want. They continue to perform below their capabilities which is ultimately damaging to the business bottom-line and can create tension and resentment– both in them and their colleagues, and they ultimately often end up leaving.

However, in a work culture where difficult conversations are being had people feel psychologically safe, and there are high levels of trust. Resolutions and solutions are found, there are higher rates of collaboration and higher rates of productivity. People ultimately feel understood, again a basic human need.

One study recently also found that it’s such a work culture, one where there are visible signs of empathy, where people feel the most engaged and motivated – again all factors that have an effect on the business bottom line.

Conversations And The Link To Emotional Intelligence (EQ)

As a manager, leader, and human being, the higher EQ you have the happier, more fulfilled and successful you are.

Handling difficult conversations cuts across all four quadrants and all four cornerstones of EQ – see our model below.

When you are having difficult conversations you are practising:

  • Self-awareness: knowing how you think and feel about the topic at hand
  • Self-Management: managing your own emotions and beliefs about the issue that needs to be raised
  • Social-Awareness: recognising and understanding the other person’s potential emotions and responses to what you have to say
  • Relationship Management: managing and taking care of the relationship and how they might feel and respond to what you have to say and discuss

You are also practising:

  • Ownership: of your role and responsibility for what needs to be said
  • Compassion: for yourself and the person you’re talking to
  • Well-Being: having the conversation and resolving the issue reduces stress and negative emotions – all of which take a toll on your mental health and wellbeing
  • Conscious Choice: making the conscious choice to deal with the issue at hand rather than ignore or avoid it.

Therefore, the more adept at difficult conversations you are, the more EQ you will be developing – both in yourself, and those around you.

It, therefore, makes sense all round, to be having them, and encouraging them within your workplace.

Amanda Gethin says there is also another, often unexpected bonus and reward that might help you push through the discomfort to have such conversations:

“Rather than seeing these conversations as a negative, know that they can often help to connect the other person with the bigger picture and therefore give them more of a sense of purpose in what they do.
Far from being cruel or unkind (a common fear), it’s quite the opposite – you are actually helping someone learn, grow and develop.

You are helping them understand what they don’t yet know or aren’t yet doing and should be. and to see what is missing. You are in effect showing them how to stretch into that gap and start to fill it, how they can leap forward, what’s next for them, and how to up their game. You can use it as an opportunity to show them how what they do fits into the bigger picture and impacts others – in essence to give a sense of meaning.

Doing this will in turn give you a deeper sense of purpose – knowing you have been helping and enabling someone else for the greater good.

How to have difficult conversations:

1) Prepare

Because of the potential for conflict, rejection, and the general sensitive nature of such conversations, it is important to fully prepare. But how do you prepare for difficult conversations at work? This is not about going in with a pre-rehearsed script – this is a dialogue, not a monologue- rather this is about going into the conversation with a structure and intention as to how you would like it to go.

With that in mind, one fabulous structure is the TRUST model. Originally meant for giving feedback we have developed this to further cover other difficult conversations:

Download a copy of this + template for your own conversation

2) Consider the point of view of the other person

Because they can be so stressful, it’s easy to get caught up in trying not to get too emotional, what you need to say, and what you want to get out of it. One of the most important aspects of having difficult conversations is to think about what the other person might want to say, how they might feel, how they might react.

This is where the core EQ skills of empathy and compassion come in.

We are hard-wired to judge, criticise and blame – another ancient brain survival mechanism. It therefore typically takes some work to put ourselves in the shoes of others, assume the best intent, and feel compassionate towards them – especially when we are talking about something they have done ‘wrong’.

So before and during your conversation, try putting your ‘giraffe ears’ on! In nonviolent communication (NVC) theory, having the largest heart of any land animal, the giraffe is the symbol of compassion. Whereas, because of its nature and behaviour, the jackal is the symbol animal for judgement, blame and criticism.

3) Watch your language!

Get to the point quickly. Be clear, specific and direct with your language.

As above in the TRUST model, use ‘clean’ language and specific examples. Remove all interpretations, opinions or judgements eg. don’t say “when you were being aggressive”, instead say something like “when you raised your voice and talked over the group”.

Equally, when talking about the impact of their actions, avoid saying things like “I felt dismissed by you” ‘Dismissed’ is not a feeling – it is just another interpretation of what happened. Look beneath the interpretation, in this case, that they were dismissing you, and at the feeling you had in response to their actions – for example, you may have felt hurt or frustrated that they didn’t follow your guidance.

4) Ask questions + Listen!

Remember – this is a dialogue, not a monologue.

Allow space and time for the other person to hear and receive what you’ve said, and then also to respond.
Create an environment in which the other person can feel safe, heard, and seen.
Ask questions to check in with how everything is landing eg.

“How is this landing?”
“What does this mean to you?”
“Where else might this show up?”
“How are you feeling having heard all of this?”
“What do you think about this?”
“What do you need?

When you’ve asked your question(s), really listen in to what is being said, and equally, to what is not being said. Observe the other person’s body language, facial expressions, listen to their tone of voice and speed of speech delivery.

Especially, trust your intuition. Name anything you’re sensing, picking up on, or are feeling within yourself eg. “I’m sensing you’re feeling upset about this, what do you need?”

5) Allow for emotions

Underneath all of this and your focus on the other person, it’s important to be aware of, and be able to, manage your own emotions. Behind what you need to say you might indeed feel anger, frustration or disappointment. During the conversation, these emotions could even be exacerbated by the person’s responses.

If the latter happens, take a moment. Breath into the emotion and where it is in your body. Doing so triggers the parasympathetic nervous system which calms and settles your body.

If the emotion is extreme on either side, feel free to call time on the meeting for now – allowing both of you time and space to reflect, and to revisit the conversation in a calmer state, at a specified time. Maybe even take a walk around the block and allow your nervous system to calm – a good twenty minutes, preferably combining fresh air and some form of body movement works well.

However, if you can, and they’re not too extreme, stay with the emotions, again role-modelling how to manage them well in the workplace. Amanda Gethin:

“ It’s important to ensure that there is the space in the conversation to appreciate emotions as well as the content.
It’s especially important to acknowledge and accept them in the moment. Explain why they may be feeling the way they do, show understanding, and especially don’t judge them for it. For example, instead of saying something like “You really shouldn’t be angry about this” say “I can see you’re upset by this’…which is understandable and only natural.

6) Offer a solution + next steps

There’s nothing worse than delivering difficult feedback or news and leaving it at that. If you’re telling someone why they’re, for example, not getting a promotion, explain in detail why, and give them specific developmental areas and actions they can take to try and get it next time around.

Empower them to also come up with their own solutions by again asking questions:

“What do you think is needed?”
“What do you think you need to do differently / better?”
“What will you do?”

Then come up with a joint solution, agreed on specific measurable actions, and a time-specific commitment to meet again to discuss further and check in on any actions.

7) Reflection + ownership

Rather than being relieved it’s all over and moving on to the next thing (however tempting that may be), take some time to reflect on what just happened, and your role in that.

Think about: How did it go? How did you do? What went well? What went not so well? What’s the learning? What could you do differently next time?


Having difficult conversations does take time, effort, and a huge dose of courage. However, it’s clear that there are much bigger benefits to be had, than there are costs.

It’s also clear that now, more than ever, they need to be had. Amanda Gethin:

“The next generation are far more astute and attuned to a feedback culture – social media has meant that they are used to observing behaviour and being observed by others. They are to some extent, comfortable with it, but they want it done face to face in this digital age. They are more challenging, and they will therefore often ask for it.
Plus, post-covid, we do need more of a human centric approach. People want to be treated as people first, not ‘workers’. You really need to put the person at the heart of the conversation you’re going to have as most people are now looking to see if you’re trying, if your heart is in the right place, if you really care.

If you, your team, or people would like to attend our free upcoming How to Have Difficult Conversations Masterclass drop me an email and I will let you know when it’s scheduled.

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