How to have a difficult conversation

We all have things we would rather not do.  Things we put off till we have no choice.  For employers, that may mean having a difficult conversation.  Maybe you are dreading one now.  Maybe you need to tackle poor performance, redundancies or the situation I find the hardest – telling someone they have body odour.  Handle the situation sensitively and you may be soon be wondering why you didn’t do it sooner.

How to prepare for a difficult conversations

As with anything worthwhile, success is in the planning.

Think through clearly what the issue is and where you are aiming to get to.  Plan what you are going to say.   If you are well prepared you will feel more confident and can choose how to say things most tactfully.

Plan to use different types of questions.  Open questions encourage discussion. Probing questions help to find out the employee’s point of view.  Use closed questions to check facts.


Who should have the conversation?

If you are dealing with a personal issue or they have a sensitive complaint, think carefully who should handle this.  This is not the time for a “bull in a china shop” approach.  You need a good listener.

If you are faced with a potential disciplinary, consider the ACAS Code of Practice.  Ideally the investigator, the disciplinary chair and the appeal chair should be different people.  Each stage should be considered by a manager at least as senior as the last.

If they have raised a complaint about you, I’d recommend someone else hears it.  Your natural reaction may be defensive but you need to let them speak.  Could you ask a senior colleague instead?


Setting the environment

I will never forget sitting in the cafe of a business centre as, on the table next to me, an appraisal took place. It clearly wasn’t going well.  I found it painful.  Goodness knows how the employee felt.  Treating people with respect is so important.  Use a location that is private and free from interruptions.  If  you don’t have one, hire one.

Avoid sitting opposite one another across a desk, it’s confrontational.  If possible, sit on a round table or across the corner of a desk.

Have some tissues within close to hand.  Don’t put them on the table almost daring them to cry.  Have them within easy reach, just in case.


The difficult conversation in action

Start your difficult conversation with something like, “I need your help to find out what happened.  Do you have a few minutes to talk?”

Be open-minded and prepared to listen.  Acknowledge problems and be honest with yourself.

Active listening shows that you believe the employee has something worthwhile to say.   Repeat back to demonstrate you have listened and understood.

There may be awkward silences.  Accept that this may happen.  They may be in shock.  Give them time to react.

If an employee becomes emotional or angry, remain calm.  If needs be, take a short break.   Better that than say something that one party may later regret.


If you are still putting off having that difficult conversation, I can help.  Please contact me.   The sooner you tackle the issue, the better.


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