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Difficult conversation

How to have a Difficult Conversation: Part 4

Having a difficult conversation does not always mean that we are dealing with difficult people. In many instances, it will be colleagues we like, we respect and who mean a lot to us as part of our teams. Conflict and differences do not need to push people apart. There is no doubt you are going to run into people who will come across as difficult at some point or other in your professional conversations. Not everyone you are going to meet in your life is going to be someone you like and can work with; and not everyone you meet is going to like you and can work with you. Being with a difficult person is perceived as difficult. A difficult person can make you defensive, exhausted, fearful, miserable, angry, unhappy. You are left with no time and no energy. The cost of resolving conflict is small relative to the high cost of leaving conflicts unresolved. Unresolved conflict can be toxic to both you and your organization. I can offer a way to look at the situation with a different pair of glasses. One of the most powerful questions you can ask yourself is ‘Am I effective at dealing with difficult people at work?’ If the answer is ‘I am not really dealing with it very well’ then read this. If your problem is more about having strategies to deal with a difficult conversation, then read on?


1. What is the definition of a difficult conversation?

According to ACAS, it is a conversation where you have to manage emotions and information in a sensitive way to:

  • Address poor performance or conduct
  • Deal with personal problems
  • Investigate complaints/deal with grievances
  • Comfort or reassure someone, for example, if they are to be made redundant
  • Tackle personality clashes
  • Deal with potentially delicate situations, such as turning down requests for annual leave or to work flexibly.


2. What makes us fear difficult conversations?

  • Fear of conflict
  • Fear of upsetting people
  • Fear that colleagues might quit
  • Fear of feeling uncomfortable
  • Fear of confrontation
  • Fear of experiencing pain, hurt, disappointment, shame, failure so becoming vulnerable ourselves in our attempts to address a conflict or engage in a difficult discussion.


3. What does research show?

CIPD finds that ‘nearly four in ten UK employees (38%) report some form of interpersonal conflict at work in the last year. This includes an isolated dispute or incident of conflict (29% of UK employees reporting at least one case) and ongoing difficult relationships (28%).’


How to have a Difficult Conversation: Part 4 1
Source: Getting under the skin of conflict: Tracing the experiences of employees (CIPD, 2015)


4. What do you want to achieve with this conversation?

Start with why? If you are unsure, watch this TED Talk from Simon Sinek.

  • What do I want to get out of it?
  • What outcomes would resolve the situation?

How about Transformation? You gain cooperation, strengthen the relationship with the individual, and help your organisation in achieving its business goals.

Choose the right words and be neutral. Use expressions such as ‘it seems like’, ‘it sounds like’, ‘it looks like’ and not ‘I am hearing that’ because using ‘I’ gets people’s guard up.

Do not forget the following:

  • Do not interrupt. Too often, we are thinking and preparing our defence instead of listening to what the other person is saying.
  • Do not deny. Since each person is following rule #1, s/he is owning what s/he is saying. You have to respect their perception.
  • Do not cross complaints. Stay on one topic. Past and other issues will be handled at another time.
  • Put yourself in others? shoes and respond from that position.
  • If you cannot agree during the discussion: ‘Since we can’t seem to agree, can we continue talking about it another day so we can think of more solutions?’ Often a conflict can’t be resolved in the initial discussion. Taking time out to think and reflect may help with fresh ideas and perspectives.
  • If you want to make sure that this does not happen again: ‘What can I do to improve communications so this does not happen again?’ This focuses the conflict on the process and not the people, which is critical for resolution.
  • If the other person is yelling at you: ‘I want to listen to your point of view, but I can’t do it when you are yelling at me’. This sets the ground rules and prevents the situation from getting out of control.
  • If you see things differently: ‘I understand your point of view, but I see it differently’.After listening to their perspective, it is acceptable now to disagree and outline reasons for your opinion as the leader (remember to use the facts and think of your why).


5. Prepare the conversation for this face to face meeting and adopt the NP Model


STEP 1 – Make a list of what you/line manager have observed. Those are the facts that nobody should be able to argue with. There are not assumptions or feelings either. This is about a behaviour, performance change that is observable and therefore measurable.

Examples: ‘I’ve noticed that we’ve used 65% of our training budget. We have 7 months left on this budget’ or ‘Yesterday I saw you slam down the phone and leave work early.’

STEP 2 – List the direct impact on the team/budget/project and the indirect impact (client/KPI/business strategy?)

Example: ‘If we continue like this, we will use all of the budget by March and we will end up running over budget or cutting down on approving training for the staff which in itself could affect the quality of the delivery of our services on our clients.’

STEP 3 – Justify why you wanted this person specifically to know about it:

Example: ‘I wanted to talk to you about this as I know you have high standards for your team and for yourself. I know you expect training to be delivered as per our timeline, budget.’

STEP 4 – Ask for what you want, not what you don?t want. Focus on the future and not the past.

Example: Using a negative such as ‘I’don’t want you to miss your sales numbers this month’ might sound like a threat. Saying ‘I want you to easily make your sales numbers this month’ shows support and ambition for your team member.

STEP 5 –Invite the other person to input:

Example: ‘What do you think we could do to improve the current situation or to change the current trajectory?’

STEP 6 – Ensure that you have a commitment, close the conversation with next steps.

Example: ‘That sounds great, so we agree that you will do X, and I will do Y. You will communicate to your team and send a follow-up email to them CCing me in.’

STEP 7 –¬†Make sure your colleague feels listened to before moving forward.

Example: ‘Is there anything else I can do to support you?’


6. Building great relationships from the start

A recent CareerBuilder survey says 50 percent of employees would stay longer with their companies if they were recognized more frequently.What phrases could you use to build better relationships?


# Praise

  • Having you on our team makes a huge difference.
  • It’s so refreshing working with you.
  • I really admire how you handled that [situation/difficult customer/task]!
  • Your role is important to the success of the team and of the company.
  • We couldn’t have done it without you.


# Encouragement and Trust

  • I trust your judgment on this decision.
  • I have total confidence in your abilities to deliver on this project.


# Supporting

  • What can I do to help you develop further?
  • My door is always open.
  • When can we schedule some time to discuss your career path and development goals?
  • I want to make sure you have everything you need to succeed. Any obstacles in the way? Any barriers we can remove?
  • How can I better support you as your line manager or direct report?


# Inspire

  • I would love your feedback on any changes I need to make before presenting.
  • I want to play to your strengths.
  • Tell me how that works. I am keen to learn from you.


This blog on How to have a difficult conversation gives you an opportunity to think about how you can prepare for that conversation. Thank you as ever for stopping by. What do you think of what you’ve read? I hope it’s helpful if you are thinking of looking for an Executive and Leadership Coach who does virtual coaching. Feel free to comment below or Tweet me @NadinePowrie with any comments or email me at

It’s good to talk. I’ve just opened up new offers for virtual coaching. This is in response to my current clients’ feedback. You may also be interested in my Masterclasses.



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