Three steps to take the sting out of difficult conversations 

So often at work we avoid having difficult conversations because, for many of us, it is just too hard.  We have worked in plenty of organisations where people tell us they have recommended people for promotion just to get rid of them and avoid having the difficult conversations about their poor performance or behaviour.

Often we hear about this pattern from people who are performing well but are demotivated because they see poor performance and bad behaviour by others being ‘rewarded’ with promotion.

So, what do you need to think about before having a difficult conversation?

1. Treat the other person with respect

No matter what the situation is, you need to role model the sort of behaviour you expect of others.  You demonstrate respect through your behaviour.  The way you listen to the other person, your tone of voice, the way you look at them, your gestures and the words you use all demonstrate whether or not you respect them.  If you are disrespectful the other person is unlikely to be open and honest with you.

2. Listen until you understand their position

Unless you know how another person is thinking and feeling, you don’t know what’s going on for them.  The goal of listening is to understand what someone is trying to say, what it means to them and how they feel about it.  Don’t make assumptions or jump to conclusions.  Listen to what the other person is saying and reflect this back to them to check that you have understood correctly.

Sometimes, by taking these first two steps a situation can be resolved.  Usually however, you also need to discuss your side of the situation.

3. State your views, needs and feelings

It is possible that the other person doesn’t know what you expect from them and how difficult it is for you when they don’t perform?  If they need details and you are a big picture thinker, it may be that you haven’t given them enough information to be able to do their job.  If you have focused on the details of their role they may not understand how that fits in with the big picture of what you are trying to achieve.  Make sure you have explained your views and feelings clearly and checked that they understand.  You should also focus only on the issue(s) being addressed and not bring other issues that may have frustrated you because they haven’t been addressed.

Being able to deal calmly and effectively with difficult conversations is an essential part of being a leader; it helps build the team, lift performance and set an example for others.

You can read more about communication skills in Robert Bolton’s excellent People Skills.  If you or your team would like some help having difficult conversations at work please contact us at

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