Difficult Workplace Conversations

Handling difficult conversations can bring on a number of different feelings. According to a Chartered Management Institute survey into difficult workplace conversations, 66% of people feel stressed or anxious if they know a difficult conversation is coming up.

As a startup business owner, you’ll want to be prepared for handling difficult conversations. For example, when dealing with customers who’ve contacted you about a complaint. What about an unhappy supplier who’s called you about an overdue invoice? For those of you with staff, you might need to provide developmental feedback or address a problem. For all these scenarios and more, you can follow the included business coaching best practice tips when handling difficult conversations.

Difficult conversations and how people feel

In the UK, and as the image below highlights, the top difficult conversations that we tend to have in the workplace relate to:

  • 33% Pay
  • 31% Inappropriate behaviour from colleagues
  • 30% Poor performance feedback

In the run up to, and during difficult conversations, it’s important to remain calm. Certainly, listen to your body and look out for any signs/indicators of change(s). For example, heartbeat starts to race, can’t settle/relax, start sweating or feeling hot.

handling difficult conversations breakdown



Business Coaching Tips – Before Conversations

It’s good practice to schedule a meeting for handling difficult conversations that you know are coming up. For example, a 1-2-1 meeting with a member of staff about a mistake.

It’s not always possible to plan ahead, but you could still try a short breathing exercise during in the moment difficult conversations. Instead of finding a quiet space, it’s about monitoring your breathing throughout the difficult conversation.

Practice a breathing exercise:

  • Take a few minutes in a quiet space.
  • Take along deep breath in and slowly release.
  • Repeat for a few minutes until you feel calm and ready.

In addition to the basic breathing tips above, you can also try this 3 Minute Breathing Exercise. Breathing forms part of Mindfulness practice, which supports good mental health. Certainly, mindfulness can also prepare you for handling difficult conversations.

Try a short mindfulness exercise:

  • Go for a 5-minute walk.
  • Focus in the moment and mentally note your surroundings. For instance, any smells, the breeze, colours/shapes etc. from trees/buildings etc. In addition, anything else you can see, hear and/or smell.
  • Note when your mind starts to wonder. Certainly, it will because you’re human and our brains are wired to do so.
  • Bring your mind/thoughts back to the moment and repeat the step above

You can also build mindfulness practice into your daily routine. For example, whilst brushing your teeth, eating a meal or having a shower.

Other Tips 

  • Distract yourself for a few minutes. For example, listen to some calming music, read a book etc. to clear your mind and body of negative thoughts, feelings and emotions.
  • Think about your posture during difficult conversations. For example, try to remain upright and firmly sat back in your chair, with your feet flat on the floor. Avoid waving your arms/hands, since this can come across as defensive.
  • Do what works for you, since tried and tested ways are often the best. If you haven’t yet found something that works for you, try something new.

The important things whilst handling difficult conversations is to remain calm and clear negative thoughts and feelings. Most importantly, this takes time and practice. Give these ideas a go and see if they help.

Preparation for Handling Difficult Conversations

  • Gather relevant examples and feedback.
  • Prepare what you want and need to say.
  • Plan and organise your thoughts. For example, write it out first or make some brief notes to help you stay on track. In addition, use a flip chart to visualise and which might be useful for the receiver as well.
  • Schedule a 1-2-1 meeting with the person and make sure they know what it’s about

Scheduling Meetings 

  • Schedule the meeting in applicable calendars, giving reasonable time and notice. For instance, allow time to reflect before having a meeting, but do arrange within good time. For example, don’t let things fester and do not avoid having a meeting/conversation, just because it’s not easy.
  • Label the meeting appropriately and include a short agenda (either a brief sentence to sum up or bullet points).
  • Ensure the calendar entry is set up with an automatic reminder.  If it’s a confidential meeting and your team has shared calendar access, mark the calendar entry as ‘private’, so only the attendees can see what it’s about.
  • Keep all confidential information in a secure area (paperwork locked in cabinets, shared drive restrictions and/or password protected etc. Think: the right information needs to be available at the right time(s), for the right people and through the right means and channels. Click the links to learn more about GDPR part 1 and GDPR part 2.

Business Coaching Tips – During Difficult Conversations/Meetings

  • Be direct and specific. For example, summarise your feedback and include relevant and appropriate examples. This will help the recipient clearly see where they need to make improvements and why.
  • Watch your language. For example, remain professional and avoid the word “why”, since this can come across negatively. It’s better to summarise the problem/issue and ask the person things like; How do you think this makes people feel? What implications do you think this could have/has had?
  • Offer a solution, including a more appropriate way of approaching the problem/issue. Ask the recipient; how could you have handled it?
  • Manage your emotions. Remain calm, professional and to the point and remember, the receiver may also have similar feelings.
  • Empathise, where possible and when appropriate to do so.
  • Allow the other person to ask questions, but if the issue is they talk over you and/or aren’t listening, address it in the moment.  In addition, ask them what they think so they feel heard.

Suggested phrases for difficult conversations

Closing Thoughts

The phrases opposite aren’t intended as an exhaustive list or as the only options to use during difficult conversations.

The important thing is to be mindful. In addition, consider what, how, when and why you’re communicating.

Think about the communication methods, mediums and your target audience to facilitate the most effective communication means and tools.

For some further reading and a useful framework for handling difficult conversations, take a look at this book; Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes Are High, 2nd edition, 2012 and published by McGraw-Hill Education.

Contact Maximum Solutions Consulting Ltd for more information about handling difficult conversations. In addition, visit the Business Coaching London page for details about business coaching services.