How to handle difficult work conversations

How to handle difficult work conversations

 21 Jun 2024

It’s easy to understand the temptation to avoid having difficult conversations in the workplace; we feel awkward and/or embarrassed, not sure how best to handle it, worried about the reaction/fallout. Whatever the issue, an element of conflict in the workplace is inevitable. However, the right approach will enable you to handle the conversation effectively and with confidence.


Set the tone

Emotions can easily run high especially if someone is feeling judged, criticised and/or vulnerable, so it is important that you remain calm and focused, with the emphasis on collaboration rather than confrontation.


Prepare thoroughly

Preparation is the key to effective and sensitive communication, especially when dealing with challenging conversations. Before the meeting, take time to gather your thoughts and ensure that you have relevant facts and examples to support your points. Define the purpose of the conversation and what you hope to achieve. Consider the other person’s perspective and anticipate their potential reactions. This preparation helps you stay focused and ensures you address all critical points.


When and where

The environment can significantly impact the tone and outcome of the conversation. Choose a private, neutral location where both parties feel comfortable. This will help minimise distractions and ensures confidentiality, which will help allow for an open conversation. Make sure you allow plenty of time so that the conversation can be thorough and unrushed.


Be clear and direct

Clarity and directness are essential in difficult conversations. Avoid beating around the bush or sugarcoating the issue. State the purpose of the meeting upfront and articulate your concerns clearly and concisely. Being straightforward helps prevent misunderstandings and ensures both parties are on the same page. For example, instead of saying, “I think there might be some areas for improvement in your work,” say, “I’ve noticed that your reports have been missing critical information, which impacts our project timelines.”



Active listening is crucial as it shows respect for the other person’s viewpoint and helps you understand their perspective. Allow the other person to speak without interrupting, and use reflective listening techniques, such as summarising their points and asking clarifying questions For example, if the other person expresses frustration about a lack of resources, you might respond with, “It sounds like you’re feeling overwhelmed due to insufficient resources. Can you tell me more about the specific challenges you’re facing?”


Manage your emotions

Emotions can run high during difficult conversations, but it’s important to stay calm and composed. Manage your emotions by taking deep breaths, pausing if needed, and maintaining a neutral tone of voice. This helps keep the conversation productive and prevents it from escalating into a heated argument. If you feel your emotions rising, it’s sensible to take a few minutes’  break to gather your thoughts.


Focus on solutions

Shift the focus from the problem to finding solutions. Encourage a collaborative approach by involving the other person in brainstorming potential solutions. This not only empowers them but also fosters a sense of ownership and commitment to the resolution. For example, after discussing a performance issue, you might say, “Let’s come up with a plan to improve your report accuracy. What resources or support do you think you need to succeed?”


Follow up

A difficult conversation doesn’t end when the meeting is over. Send a follow-up email summarising the key points discussed and the agreed-upon action steps. Schedule a follow-up meeting to review progress and address any new concerns. This demonstrates your commitment to resolving the issue and helps maintain accountability.


Managing difficult work conversations is an essential skill in any professional setting. Ideally, the goal is not just to resolve the issue at hand but to build stronger, more trusting relationships in the workplace. By preparing thoroughly, being clear and direct, listening effectively, managing emotions, and focusing on solutions you can handle these conversations with confidence and effectiveness.


For more advice and/or to discuss your own career objectives, please contact Cathy Buckley on 020 3303 0020 or email



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