Difficult conversations at work

Effective Difficult Conversations at Work (Part 1)

As a manager, have you ever needed to have a difficult conversation with a colleague and not known even how to begin it (let alone how to finish it)? Most of us have been there…

We may be tempted to put off the conversation in the vain hope that the issue will resolve itself or, at the other extreme, we have been tempted to charge in and have made a complete hash of it. Very few of us are naturally gifted in this area but help is at hand!

Most of us know how to hold a conversation, so what makes a “difficult conversation” so difficult?

Maybe it is the purpose or content of the meeting that proves difficult. The purpose and the content of the meeting may involve telling the person something they would rather not hear such as being the subject of an investigation or being scrutinised for lateness, poor performance or timekeeping.

Maybe it’s a “difficult” person that makes a conversation “difficult”. The “difficult” person we need to talk to may have a reputation for being unreasonable, belligerent or worse! These all make a conversation potentially difficult.

Then of course, there are our perceptions of our own frailties which we often disclose through internal conversations we have with ourselves. This internal dialogue so often reflects the sense of conflict we feel when faced with a difficult conversation or any stressful situation for that matter. It is this that so often undermines our self-confidence and our ability to act as we would like to.

In over 20 years of training managers, this lack of self-confidence is the feature that for me stands out among those who struggle with difficult conversations. So how do we develop the confidence to act?

Some approaches emphasise thorough planning and an assertiveness skills approach. My approach starts at a more fundamental level. We will cover the process of planning and conducting the conversation in part 2 of this series but will concentrate here on developing the right mind-set. There are three steps: being aware of the physiological and psychological effects of stress, developing a helpful internal dialogue and checking our motives.


1. Managing our emotions.

It is quite natural to feel strong emotions when we are faced with a difficult or challenging situation. We all react to challenge differently but the symptoms of strong emotional reactions are familiar to most of us. These include increased heart rate, an increase in adrenalin and serotonin, sweaty hands and a dry mouth. What is not so widely appreciated is that these hormonal changes reduce our capacity to think clearly and creatively. In particular, these physiological changes can lead us into the twin dangers of fight or flight.

In fight mode we have a propensity to conduct the difficult conversation with guns blazing and attempt to dominate proceedings. In flight mode we have a propensity to back down and allow the other person to direct the conversation. Clearly neither of these approaches will promote an open exchange of views or mutual understanding and respect which are hallmarks of genuine dialogue. So what will?

Physiological and Psychological Impact of negative emotional states

  • Increased heart rate.
  • Amygdala hijack: fight or flight response.
  • Narrows people’s ideas about action.
  • Lower levels of performance.
  • Focus on the immediate and concrete – lose links with future goals or personal values.

We have all heard the phrase “Strike while the iron is hot” but for our purposes it is better to “Strike while the iron is cold!” In other words, we conduct the difficult conversation when all parties have their emotions largely under control. Although we and they may still feel anxious we are all nonetheless able to show respect, express ourselves clearly and to listen to what each other is saying.

Physiological and psychological impact of positive emotional states

  • Normal heart rate.
  • More ordered thoughts, including future goals and / or personal values.
  • Broadens thinking to develop more ideas.
  • Improved problem solving.
  • Higher levels of performance.

So monitoring and managing our emotional state is the first step in conducting an effective difficult conversation. But a second step is usually required too.


2. Developing a helpful internal dialogue.

We should monitor our internal dialogue too. Thoughts usually precedes action and so it is our thoughts that help us understand our behaviour. We may have all kinds of thoughts about a difficult conversation and any conscious thoughts will surface in internal dialogue in which there are often two competing ‘voices’. For example,

  • Voice 1 (V1) may say “I really don’t want to speak to Jane about her poor timekeeping, maybe it will just improve if I say nothing”
  • Voice 2 (V2) replies “But you are her manager and you have a responsibility to help her improve not just to hope she will”
  • V1 “Yes, but let’s just give it another week and see if she improves, I don’t want to make an unnecessary fuss”
  • V2 “ You’ve been saying that for the last 2 weeks and her timekeeping has simply got worse. Everyone has noticed how late she is coming in. You need to say something now.”
  • V1 “But I don’t know how to start. I know I should say something, but I don’t know what to say and I’m scared that I might mess it up and make matters worse like I did last time”
  • V2 ”Well you haven’t really got a choice have you? You can’t just let it ride since her timekeeping is clearly getting worse. What are you going to do?”
  • V1 “I don’t know! I’m afraid of making matters worse and I can feel my blood pressure rising just thinking about it. Let’s just leave it one more week…”

This is fairly typical of the internal dialogue experienced by managers who procrastinate. Inaction or over-reaction is often driven by unhelpful internal dialogue. So how do we replace this with a helpful dialogue?

We will use what is known as the ABCDE model as follows:

A is the activity that triggers the dialogue

B is the belief that results

C is the consequence of that behaviour


A – I just don’t seem able to address poor timekeeping with my staff

B – Good managers are able to address issues. I’m a weak manager; I just can’t address these issues with people.

C – I feel tongue-tied and anxious when I try to broach the subject, my colleagues sense it and everyone is embarrassed. I struggle on but the timekeeping is affecting team relationships.

We don’t have to put up with this unhelpful self-talk; we can change this by following up the ABC model with D, disputing. This then leads to E, the energy to take action and to do something different.

D – My attempts to broach the subject may not be perfect, but my peers are supportive. I know they think I am a good manager from the recent staff questionnaire results. Maybe I need to get them to coach me and help me practice what I’m going to say and how.

E – I’ll meet with them and we’ll discuss what works for them and what suits my style and I’ll get some practice in a safe setting to overcome my anxiety so that I feel confident enough to address the poor timekeeping with individuals.


3. Checking our motives.

Are we acting impartially or have we got a personal agenda such as favouritism or (should we mention it) revenge? As managers we are in a position of power and how we exercise that power has consequences for everyone: for ourselves, the other person and for those looking on. Our colleagues will observe how we exercise our power, influence and authority and inevitably draw conclusions about our character and our competence.

There is also a strong moral case for checking our motives and it is the Golden Rule of doing to others what we would have them do to us. It is quite possible for two managers to apply the same management principles and procedures and emerge with widely differing outcomes which may result from different motives. But if our overriding motive is to be fair and impartial then it is essential that we put ourselves in the other person’s place and ask how we would like to be treated if we were in their position.

If I have ‘got it in’ for the other person, then I am unlikely to apply the Golden Rule; if I show favouritism to them, then again I am unlikely to apply the Golden Rule. The test is whether or not in applying the Golden Rule to a range of persons in the same situation I obtain similar outcomes. If the outcomes are similar then it is likely that I have at least acted impartially and probably acted morally too. Two ways to check this is to review the way we have dealt with similar cases in the past and to ask a trusted confidant for their honest opinion of our proposed action (without breaching confidentiality).

This blog has laid three foundations to help us conduct effective difficult conversations. Understanding the likely physiological impact of our emotional state on our behaviour enables us to avoid taking action when we are least physiologically able to and to strike only when the iron is cold. Critiquing our internal dialogue means that we will be free of unwarranted assumptions and beliefs that prevent us from managing others effectively. Checking our motives means that we are more likely to act fairly and without fear or favour towards others. In sum, we are more able to act confidently and with integrity, and that has to be good for all of us!

If you have found this helpful then please feel free to ask about our executive coaching and training workshops which are designed to give more detailed help.


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