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Having difficult conversations


By definition, difficult conversations are…well, difficult!  Which is probably why so many of us avoid having them at all. 

Research from the Chartered Management Institute shows that workplace conversations can be the trickiest of difficult conversations, with Brits find it easier to dump a partner than ask their boss for a pay rise.   And research from the same organisation also shows that British managers are often ill-prepared for dealing with difficult conversations in the workplace due to a lack of training and appropriate experience.

Our own research shows that the most common workplace ‘difficult conversation’ for managers involves a discussion with an employee about poor performance.  Managers felt that having conversations involving emotions - such as behaviours or workplace relationship - were trickier than more factual issues - such as timekeeping. 

Does a conversation become any less difficult for delaying it?  Of course not.  However, managers gave a range of reasons why they justified delay including:

  • Not wanting to upset the individual
  • Hoping the issue would resolve itself without intervention
  • Wanting to take the time to fully understand all of the issues
  • Overlooking the issue if performance is otherwise good.

The managers we have spoken to were equally aware of the potential consequences of not having the conversation - particularly if it related to poor performance.  Avoiding the conversation about behaviour or performance could send out the message that managers condone it; the individual carries on doing what they have been and the rest of the team follows the example set!

So, how do you go about having the difficult conversation and making sure that it is effective?  We like these five suggestions from the Investors in People web site:

  1. Self-regulation: being aware of your body’s reactions and expectations

Emotional self-awareness and self-regulation are important before and during difficult conversations. If you’re someone who runs out of breath when facing interpersonal conflict, focusing on a deep and smooth breathing pattern may help you remain calm. Or maybe your body language gets defensive (think sitting back with your arms folded) and that then influences your facial expressions and the way you talk.



  1. Understand how the brain responds to verbal threat

The CORE model is useful to understanding why some difficult conversations make people defensive and some don’t. Reward and threat are created in the brain based on either positive or negative stimuli to the following values:

  • Certainty: to what extent we can predict the future
  • Options: the extent to which we feel we have choices
  • Reputation: our relative importance to others
  • Equity: our sense that things are fair and just

A conversation about performance, for example, could trigger all four of these in a defensive way - making the individual feel uncertain about their future; that their choices are being taken away; that their reputation is under threat and that they are being unfairly treated.

  1. Use sensitive language to avoid triggering the brain’s defences

If you are aware of the CORE model, you can use language to avoid triggering threat response.  Make it clear that the discussion is to jointly agree a way forward and avoid blaming the individual.

  1. Listen actively: treat it as an inquiry, not a defensive conversation

Part of active listening working well in difficult conversations is avoiding planning too much.  This can make you stick to a pre-determined agenda, rather than responding to what the other person is saying.

Remember that it’s your skills, experience and genuine desire for a mutually-agreeable solution that will help the conversation run smoothly, not a rigid plan of what you want to say and what conclusions you want to draw.

  1. Slow down the conversation: give people space to think

Managers may instinctively rush difficult conversations to get them over with as quickly as possible or to avoid giving the other party time to worry or come up with counter-arguments (depending on the manager).

But this can come across as controlling, or worse aggressive, and can look like an attempt to dominate the agenda. Instead, managers should slow down the conversation with their tone, pace and cadence.


In addition to this good, general advice, our work using the ACHIEVE personality profiling tool with teams has shown how an understanding of personality types can really improve the effectiveness of workplace conversations.  It helps managers to understand their preferred communication styles and anticipate what impact this may have on the employee they are talking to.  They can better anticipate how an individual might react and use language that will have the best effect.

Finally, our discussions with managers showed that it is not just tackling poor performance that they find difficult.  Giving compliments can be tricky too - and a clumsy compliment can actually be quite damaging.  So, get the most out of your compliments and encourage even better performance by following these four steps:

  1. Be specific and precise about the strength you have noticed
  2. Give an example of this
  3. Tell the person about the impact of the strength
  4. Tell the person how could they really ramp up what they are doing to make an even bigger impact





Penny Davis is an HR expert specialising in developing teams, change and transition management and scaling SMEs for growth. If you think she could help your business - perhaps with a workshop to help managers have more effective conversations or a team event using our ACHIEVE personality profiling tool, then get in touch:



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