Five tips for having difficult discussions in the workplace

Five tips for having difficult discussions in the workplace

The workplace can give rise to countless situations in which the best way forward might be to engage in a difficult conversation. Perhaps an employee is falling short of their performance targets. It could be that you need to respond to complaints or grievances. Maybe it’s a relatively routine interaction, such as letting some hopeful job applicants know that they’ve been unsuccessful.

In any case, difficult conversations are a normal part of professional life and it’s important that you know how to conduct them with tact and professionalism. So, while difficult conversations, by their very nature, will never be easy, we’ve brought together five tips that will help them go as smoothly as possible. 

1. Start with a clear goal in mind

There should be a clear reason why the difficult conversation is necessary. Often, it simply becomes impractical to ignore a pressing issue, such as a distracting interpersonal conflict or a business decision that will affect staff members. You might worry that avoiding the conversation could lead to negative outcomes such as reduced staff engagement, diminished confidence in company leadership, low morale, or even absenteeism or high employee turnover. The point is that you ought to be confident the conversation needs to take place. You can then identify the exact problem you’d like to address and arrive at a clear understanding of what the conversation will ideally achieve. This can mean asking yourself questions like: 

  1. Why is the conversation important? 
  2. What is the best outcome the conversation could achieve? 
  3. Is the outcome I have in mind realistic? 

2. Choose an appropriate time to have the difficult conversation 

Generally, it’s best to have a difficult conversation soon after a problem arises. Any delays may lead to the situation becoming more complicated, which will only make it more difficult to address and resolve. At the same time, where a difficult conversation arises from conflict, it can be helpful to give all parties a chance to calm down and collect themselves before any formal conversation takes place. Choose a time and place where all parties will feel comfortable, and won’t be rushed, interrupted, or intimidated. If you must deliver bad news to an employee, it’s good practice to schedule the conversation for earlier in the week, so that they have time to process the information and come back to you with any questions (instead of being left to stew over the weekend). Needless to say, face-to-face interactions are vastly preferable to phone calls or text exchanges. 

3. Give yourself and the other party time to prepare 

Preparation involves more than just clarifying the goal of a difficult conversation. For example, if you must tell a long-term employee that they’ve been unsuccessful in applying for a promotion, your goal might be to impart than information while emphasising positive aspects of the employee’s application. However, you’ll need to consider other things too: how might the employee react? Have you considered any questions they might have and how you can answer them? Most importantly, do you have a solution ready for the problems that might arise from the conversation? You could say, come prepared for a skills development plan that will increase the employee’s chances of winning the promotion next time a position becomes available. 

The other party also deserves a chance to prepare for the conversation, both in practical and emotional terms. Remember: nobody likes to be surprised by bad news. Make an appointment with the other party and provide some context so they have some sense of what to expect. Give them time to prepare, but don’t leave the conversation hanging for long enough to generate suspense. 

4. Brush up on your communication skills

A difficult conversation is the ultimate test of your communication skills: it’s a context in which your tone, your body language, and, of course, the words you use can have a profound effect on how the other party receives and processes disappointing news. You must also be ready to listen effectively, demonstrate empathy, and manage your emotions to keep the dialogue professional and constructive. Here are some tips: 

  • Be direct. Don’t use vague or ambiguous statements, and avoid small talk or patronising ‘compliment sandwiches’. The other party knows to expect a difficult conversation and won’t appreciate suspense. Get to the point. 
  • Be specific. Don’t say something like: “There have been some problems recently… I’m sure you know what I’m talking about.” Clearly, state the problem and provide concrete examples with reference to specific dates, documents, projects, or interactions. 
  • State why the problem is a problem by explaining how it has impacted you, your business, or other individuals (such as the colleagues of the person you’re talking to). 
  • Focus on the issue, not the person. For example, instead of saying “You were late to work again on Monday”, you could say “I was disappointed that you weren’t at the Monday morning catch-up because it’s an important way for us all to find out what’s happening throughout the week.” 
  • Acknowledge your own role and, if appropriate, apologise. For example, “I apologise for not making my expectations clear during your orientation.” 
  • Once you’ve stated the problem, give the other party a chance to talk and ask questions. Listen attentively and patiently: make it your goal to understand the other party’s perspective even if you don’t agree with it. Ask open questions to encourage them to share how they feel, and express empathy with statements such as “I can see this has been a very frustrating experience for you.” 
  • Stay focused on solutions. Allow the other party to make suggestions (if appropriate) and try to arrive at an outcome using compromise and negotiation. 
  • Close the conversation by recapping what you’ve discussed and checked that everybody agrees to the next steps. 

5. Reflect and, if necessary, take any additional steps 

Sometimes, a difficult conversation involves delivering news that won’t require any further interaction. For example, if you must tell a job applicant that they’ve been unsuccessful, a continued dialogue is generally unnecessary. 

However, difficult conversations with colleagues or employees are a different story: they should result in some form of agreement between you and the other party. You may, for instance, have told an employee that they’ve been unsuccessful in asking for a raise and then proposed, as a solution, a professional development plan that will get them on track to achieving a raise next year. In this case, it’s imperative that you keep your word. 

So, after a difficult conversation, reflect on any responsibilities you and other parties may have assumed as a result. Take any steps you have agreed to take and allow a reasonable amount of time for other parties to meet their own obligations. You may choose to create an agreement in writing or schedule follow up conversations to monitor progress, receive feedback, and offer support. Above all, keep the lines of communication open, maintain your professionalism, keep the matter confidential, and be receptive to future conversations.