How to Manage Difficult Conversations


A difficult conversation is a conversation where we have to manage our emotions and information in a sensitive way. We may need to address personality clashes, or deal with personal problems, or address poor performance, conduct, or investigate complaints.

Most people dislike delivering bad news in person and will find any way to avoid it but these conversations should NOT be avoided. Yes, it is difficult to meet with someone and give them a message that may upset them, hurt them, or disappoint them. However, avoiding these conversations can make the situation even worse. The longer we wait, the more it can affect our workplace environment, our productivity, or our home life.

The Dilemma of the Difficult Conversation:

• If we avoid the problem, we feel taken advantage of
• Our feelings fester
• We feel like a coward
• We lose an opportunity to improve things
• If we confront the problem, things may get worse

(taken from the book notes Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most Stone, D., Patton, B., & Heen, S)

The good news is that there are some very practical steps you can take to help you handle these conversations better and, where it’s possible, obtain the outcomes you want.

Start by facing the problem and preparing:

1. It is important to set a positive tone going into the meeting and clarify the purpose of the conversation.

Get yourself in a place where you can really listen, so you will hear how the other person sees the situation. Make a strong effort to keep your own emotions in check. Meetings like this can easily become emotionally-charged.

2. The meeting should be fact-based.

If the emotional levels rise at the meeting, you may decide to request to schedule another meeting at a later date. If meeting with an employee, you should be able to outline your expectations and explain how they are missing the mark. Performance reviews are a way to evaluate if certain goals or objectives are being met.

3. Keep the attention on the purpose of the meeting and ask open ended questions.

This allows for more of an invitation for them to answer than a request, “Help me to understand…, Tell me more about…, How are you feeling about all of this…,”. Allow them the space not to answer. If the answers are not clear, you may want to keep digging. Note: Sometimes the most skillful question can provoke defensiveness. Give the person a choice if they want to answer the questions to show your intent to be more caring. This frees the person to think about the question. Acknowledge their feelings and paraphrase for clarity.

4. Ask the person what suggestions they have to resolve the situation.

Suggest what you think the other person could do and then schedule a follow up meeting. Thank the person for talking with you. Offer why it is important to resolve this conflict.

Having the necessary soft skills to navigate difficult conversations at work or home helps everyone!

Georganne Ford is the owner of By George Coaching/Consulting, a Bucks County based leadership and personal development coach accredited through the Coach Training Institute. To learn more about Georganne or her services,  or call 215-738-5289.

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