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Great Tips to Manage Difficult Workplace Conversations Effectively!

Whether it's to address poor performance, resolve team conflicts or, to discuss unacceptable behaviours, difficult conversations are a standard requirement for any manager.

However, managing difficult conversations effectively doesn't need to be stressful or challenging. With experience and skill, it's possible to manage difficult conversations in a way that drives positive outcomes all round.


Below, we've outlined some great, practical tips to get you started:

1. Deal with the Issue Immediately

Do not procrastinate and hope that an issue will resolve itself. By doing so, you risk having to manage an escalated version of the issue at a later date.

As soon as you're aware of an issue, bite the bullet, and arrange a meeting with all necessary parties to address it. This demonstrates great management to other team members, prevents potential issues from negatively affecting others, and stops someone from becoming demoralized within their role if the issue is related to poor performance.

2. Explore the Issue Before the Meeting

Ensure you give yourself time before the meeting to establish exactly what is happening and why. Conducting a meeting in the absence of this information may backfire and escalate the situation further. Your findings should ideally be pinned down to specific events, actions or outcomes.

If, for example, the issue is related to two co-workers who cannot get on, then explore how their behaviour is affecting the team or team productivity. If the issue is related to poor performance, then establish a detailed overview of how the individual is failing to hit targets or to deliver within their role.

You should ensure you bring any relevant material to the meeting and include copies, as necessary for the individual/s concerned.

3. Establish your Preferred Outcomes

Once you've collected all your necessary information, then consider the ideal outcome for the situation.

If, for example, the discussion relates to someone's lack of personal hygiene, then the ideal outcome might be that they start showering before work or that they use deodorant. If the issues relates to poor performance, then the desired outcome might be that the situation is acknowledged, monitored and that the individual receives training or mentoring to bring their performance up to speed.

4. Arrange a Comfortable Environment

To get the best out of any difficult conversations, ensure the discussion takes place on work premises in a room that facilitates privacy. Avoid having difficult conversations in a public place, such as in the staff restaurant or in a coffee shop.Glass-fronted offices in which the discussion is clearly visible to other employees is also not appropriate.

If the discussion relates to something personal, such as hygiene, then consider placing the chairs in a way that enables a more open discussion. Conducting the discussion from behind a desk will present additional unnecessary barriers.

If the discussion relates to a disciplinary event, then conducting it from behind a desk might be more appropriate as it adds additional formality.

5. Set your Tone

Avoid showing your emotions during difficult conversations. Whether you're angry or frustrated with the conduct of the people concerned, or, embarrassed about the topic in hand, you mustn't demonstrate these feelings.

Your tone must also be reflected in your body language. Avoid, for example, crossing your arms and legs and be aware of any facial expressions.

This behaviour will encourage the individual to 'mirror' the same approach and reduce potential negativity.

6. Frame the Discussion

Set the context of the discussion by:

  • Thanking them for being there
  • Outlining the reason why the meeting has been called by giving a succinct overview of the issue. Do so within the context of the issue – not the individual and avoid apportioning blame
  • Showing any materials as necessary (e.g. performance KPIs)
  • Stating that the meeting is to allow an open and productive exchange

7. Give the Individual Time to Talk

Once you've outlined the issue and shown any supporting materials, hand over to the individual to talk. You must allow them plenty of time to express themselves. If they are naturally more reserved, then ask plenty of open questions to encourage this. Don't be tempted to keep interrupting and don't talk over silence as this is an important way for someone to collect their thoughts.

8. Dealing with Anger

If the individual becomes angry, then (within reason), allow them to vent. However, their need to vent should not stray into unrelated topics.If their vent turns into anger or aggression then stop them and advise that their behaviour is not helping to deal with the issue.You may at this stage want to offer them a coffee as this will give them a few minutes to calm down before reconvening.

9. Move to a Way Forward

Once you've discussed the issue you should agree an appropriate way forward with the individual.Perhaps do this by suggesting your pre considered way forward (although be aware that this may have been altered based on input from the individual) and asking for their thoughts.

In some cases – for example in disciplinary events, you may need to consider the company response after the meeting.

Try to end the meeting on a positive and thank them for their engagement.

10. Keep up the Support

Following the meeting, and depending on the nature of the conversation, email a summary of the meeting and the agreed steps. Ask them to confirm that they are happy that the summary and steps are consistent with the agreements made in the meeting.

Arrange regular meetings to revisit the situation and demonstrate your support to helping them meet their milestones.


Why not boost your management skills by taking part in one of our impactful training courses? We support businesses across the South West with a broad range of practical and insightful business training courses. Delivered by business training experts, our training courses are tailored to meet the unique needs of our learners.

Whether you're in Cornwall, Devon, Somerset, Dorset or Wiltshire, we've got training courses to meet your needs.

Contact us to find out more. 

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