Handling Difficult Conversations

In our professional and private lives, we will sometimes be faced with difficult conversations. It could be imparting bad news to someone, having to challenge someone on their behaviour or competence, or having to address a problem we have with a colleague or a manager. Few people actively seek out conflict but occasionally it is unavoidable. It is easy to procrastinate and put-off having these difficult conversations. However, in the workplace these situations are difficult to avoid, especially if you are a manager.

Managers face many difficult situations in the workplace. These may include:

  • Dealing with issues of poor performance or conduct by individual team members
  • Reporting difficult news to superiors
  • Investigating problems between your team members
  • Informing people that their jobs have been made redundant
  • Announcing and managing change

It might seem easier to just avoid difficult conversations but there are important reasons why they need to take place. In all organisations, difficult decisions must be taken from time to time. Although these decisions will not be universally popular, it is only fair that they are communicated to the people involved. Sometimes situations can be improved through such communication. For example, if an employee does not realise their work isn’t up to the required standard, by telling them, you will have given them an opportunity to improve.

One of the major reasons why challenging conversations are avoided is because people’s emotions are also likely to be affected. There is a danger that people may be hurt, upset or angered. People, when feeling threatened, are likely to become defensive or even aggressive which can lead to emotionally charged confrontations. Hence why people prefer to avoid difficult conversations!

Difficult conversations are best managed if they are planned in advance and, where appropriate, carried out privately. This gives some degree of structure and control over the situation. A planned conversation may involve an appraisal meeting where a manager must speak to an employee about poor performance. Conversely, it could involve an employee arranging to speak with their manager to raise an issue. These are unlikely to be easy conversations but because they have been arranged to take place at a specific time and place, there has been the opportunity to prepare and to help both parties ‘save face’.

Challenging conversations may occasionally take place spontaneously. A sudden expression of emotion, perhaps having built up slowly over time, may lead to one person confronting another. As we have not had time to plan what we want to say (or how to react), these situations can go wrong and even become aggressive. If you need to speak with someone about something difficult, it is best to plan in advance and keep the situation under control.

When having a challenging conversation, there are some principles which will help you, regardless of the circumstances or context:

  • Be careful not to ‘jump the gun!’ – you need to make sure that you are in full possession of the facts. Do not leap to judgement.
  • Be an active listener. Ask questions of the other person and listen to their answers. Seek clarification on anything you do not understand.
  • Use empathy – consider the situation from the other person’s point of view and how they might be feeling
  • Assert yourself in a confident and professional manner
  • Be prepared to make compromises to negotiate a mutually beneficial outcome
  • Avoid aggressive or confrontational language or body language
  • Remain calm and as relaxed as possible

It is especially important for Senior Managers to know how to handle difficult conversations. Under SM&CR, which will apply to FCA solo-regulated firms from December 2019, each Senior Manager has a Duty of Responsibility for a specific area of a business. This means that if a firm is in breach of FCA requirements, the Senior Manager responsible could be held personally accountable if they did not take reasonable steps to stop or prevent the breach. Therefore, Senior Managers need to be confident and assertive in dealing with problems as they arise. This includes dealing with breaches of the Conduct Rules within their area of responsibility and taking appropriate action in dealing with allegations of financial or non-financial misconduct. Similarly, staff at all levels need to feel able to challenge and deal with problems, even if it can feel difficult or awkward to do so.

About the author

Nathan joined RWA in 2016 on successfully completing his PhD. He previously worked in the private, public and charitable sectors. Nathan leads the content and professional standards team at RWA and is responsible for managing and curating technical content on the Aviva Development Zone and the award-winning My Development Zone e-learning platforms.

Since joining RWA, Nathan has written hundreds of business skills e-learning modules and assessments on a variety of subjects, including leadership and management, communication skills, human resources, employability, regeneration, citizenship and equalities.

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