Friday, 12 November 2021 09:10

Difficult Conversations

Difficult conversations continue to lead as one of the underlying causes behind the issues that we are asked to support with. More accurately, it’s a failure to hold difficult conversations that is the problem, allowing issues to fester, making them more difficult to resolve.

Obvious and blatant rule breaking that initiates an investigation and disciplinary process shouldn’t create a barrier to holding a conversation; although it’s fair to say that it’s rarely comfortable to tell somebody that they’ve lost their job, even if the wrongdoing warrants it.

Very often though, we find that a team member’s behaviour is either unacceptable or doesn’t fit with the organisation’s culture. Whilst a conversation is required to deal with this, it doesn’t take place for a number of reasons:

  • Conflict: We’re afraid that the offending party won’t like or won’t agree with what needs to be said and conflict will arise.

    It’s perfectly natural and human to want to avoid conflict of course, but when you’re responsible for managing others in an organisation, sometimes, you have to do or say what is in the best interest of the business rather than what is going to keep your own personal relationships or popularity intact. Have your facts straight and your ducks lined up so that your points are indisputable.

  • Embarrassment: This can be twofold; either the topic of conversation might be of a delicate or personal nature, and we don’t know how to approach it in a sensitive way. Or the behaviour is long standing, and it has become embarrassing to raise it after all this time has elapsed.

    It can be problematic to confront behaviour that has been left unchecked for a period of time, and difficult to justify why suddenly now, it has become an issue and is no longer acceptable. Putting your finger exactly on what the problem is can be difficult, especially if no rules have been broken and it’s more of a cultural mismatch. Here, it can help to be humble and accept some of the blame, but be clear that a line is being drawn and the behaviour cannot continue.

    If it’s a personal issue, such as body odour perhaps, don’t be judgmental and keep the conversation strictly between you. Remain factual and offer support. Not discussing it won’t solve the problem.

  • Fallout: We’ve got a good idea of how the offending party is likely to react, and frankly, we just don’t want to hear it.

    Giving feedback for a shortfall in behaviour and performance when you trying to build confidence and engagement can be challenging, especially when the individual may not want to hear it. You’ll need to make this conversation part of a structured 1-2-1 review or appraisal. Include SMART objectives against which the individual can be held to account.

    Assess whether they need more training, support or both. Or do they just need to do their job to the required standard?

In our experience, the discomfort that might be felt in having to hold a difficult conversation is rarely as bad as has having to deal with the results of failing to hold it. We have heard of some individuals taking some quite convoluted and costly courses of action in order to avoid having to hold a difficult conversation. In reality, they’re just kicking the can down the road and creating a much bigger issue that they’re going to have to face eventually.

Think holistically. A proper recruitment process followed up with a structured induction and training programme and ongoing reviews and appraisals should negate the need for a really gritty, difficult conversation; plus, there will be raft of other benefits. Should an issue arise, you will have given yourself the opportunity to nip it in the bud.

If, however, you’re beyond that option and your difficult conversation is looming, here are some tips that can help:

  • Be prepared. Make sure you have as much information as you think you’ll need and have a clear idea of the outcome that you are after. Think of a mental flow-chart so you can keep the conversation on track.
  • Get on with it. Preparation is good but don’t use it as an excuse for procrastination.
  • Make an appointment. Don’t just call an ad-hoc meeting. Pre-arrange a time and date in a suitable, private environment to add formality to the meeting and gravity to your message. Remember that for disciplinary meetings, 48 hours’ notice must be given and representation offered.
  • Be direct but use open questions. Don’t beat around the bush. Get to the point of your discussion but use open questions to draw out the subject’s views. Eg. “We’re meeting today to discuss your sales figures. How do you think you are doing?”.
  • Keep emotions in check. Be aware that the subject of your conversation may make emotions run high. Keep your composure at all times and don’t get personal – show empathy
  • Find a solution together. Where possible, ensure that the outcome is agreed between you and that both parties “buy-into it”. Create a written next-steps plan if needed which will aid your position if the issue arises again.

Holding difficult conversations is a perpetual issue and we run full and half-day workshops on the topic, as well as including it in our ILM programmes. When required, we’ll also come on-site and hold the conversations alongside you or on your behalf. Especially if it’s an issue you are particularly uncomfortable with such as a performance, long-term sickness or dismissal, or for which having a third party manage the situation is better for employee relations such as redundancies.

For further help, support or advice or to discuss training, call us on 01452 331331 or drop us an e-mail to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.


Read 966 times Last modified on Friday, 12 November 2021 09:25


HR Champions provide first class HR and Employment Law support and advice to UK businesses; operationally and strategically. If you're an employer you'll potentially need some, if not all, of the services we offer.

We deliver excellent management and soft skills training suitable for all organisational levels. We are ILM and City & Guild accredited and Ken Blanchard approved.  





We are located in Gloucester in the West of the UK close to the M4 and M5 corridors. For a precise map and directions find us on Google Maps

We have clients all over the UK but predominantly within about an hour's drive time of our offices; in Gloucestershire, South Gloucestershire, Worcestershire, Bristol and Swindon & Wiltshire.