Effective Communication: Having Difficult Conversations

In all our careers there will be occasions where we need to have difficult conversations with our colleagues, these may be focused on performance management, poor behaviour, giving bad news, or be of a personal or sensitive nature, whatever the issue is, many of us do not look forward to these moments.

Why do we put these conversations off?


According to stats from the CIPD, the main reasons for putting these conversations off were the following:


  • Didn’t want to create a bad atmosphere 29%
  • To avoid confrontation 18%
  • Didn’t know how to say it 16%
  • Worried about the reprisals 11%
  • Thought it might make the situation worse 11%
  • Didn’t want to upset someone 8%
  • Other reasons (e.g. lack of back up, lack of time) 7%

 And what happened? They asked “Did the issue…”

  • Resolve itself 4%
  • Get worse 43%
  • Stay the same 49%

The other 4% reported that someone else had tackled the issue…

….not great results. On our excellent Effective Communications Skills course, we look at ways to make these conversations far less challenging and more importantly help them to be more productive and valuable for all. Let’s have a look at some of the ideas.

Reflect on the situation


Before you go headlong into having a difficult conversation, it is useful to pause and reflect on the situation; considering these questions will really help you plan:


  • What type of conflict is it?
  • What facts, purpose and values are involved?
  • What personality types are involved?
  • What is your natural response to the conflict? Avoid, Accommodate, Compete,

Compromise, Collaborate?

  • Is this the best way? What might work better?

After some reflection, you will be in a better position to have a far more productive conversation; the following steps can assist you.

1 – Everyone tells it like they see it


  • Ask questions to draw out the other’s side of the conflict, there are always two sides to a story
  • Set ground rules, this helps keep the conversation on track, professional and focused.
  • Listen without judging and avoid interrupting or blaming, hear the other person out – fully.
  • Take notes as you may need to refer to these to confirm what has been said or for future events.
  • Paraphrase what they have said before saying your version to check for understanding. Paraphrasing will confirm you really heard the other party.

2 – Everything is on the table


  • Share your understanding of the conflict so the other party sees your point of view.
  • Present your case by using “I” statements, talk for yourself and use your own evidence and feelings and understanding of the situation.
  • Get to the point and focus on the issue, not on personalities, accusations, or past encounters
  • Include feelings, facts, and perspectives – these are important and matter.

3 – Focus on the future


  • Ask for commitment to working out a solution, without this, problems will not resolve. The issues will reoccur.
  • Create a mutual action plan, discuss, and agree a solution together.
  • Get an agreement with specifics.
  • Follow through – do what you said you’d do, talk is cheap, actions say far more.
  • Schedule an evaluation meeting, review what happened, do ideas need modifying? What has been learnt?


Some great ideas to help you find a way forward when you next need to have a difficult conversation – learn more with STL.