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Difficult Conversations at Work

3 Principles for Success and 12 Top Tips

There are many reasons why difficult conversations are difficult. It's explored in our latest ready-written training materials, but in this blog I'd like to consider 3 principles for success - an ABC - to reach a positive outcome and leave relationships in tact.



A is for the ASSUMPTIONS that we make

Whether that is assumptions about the other person's intention behind their behaviour, or assumptions about their reaction when we raise it. Both can be incredibly dangerous. When we assume someone's intention, we are reading their behaviour and measuring it against our own values, behaviours or even skill and experience, which may be completely at odds with theirs. For example, you may feel that someone has completely undermined you in a meeting to make themselves look good and you look bad, because that's how you would behave if you wanted to highlight your knowledge or expertise. However that person may have spoken out of turn simply because they were excited about their idea, or maybe they couldn't read the room, or perhaps they weren't aware of their role in the meeting. There may even be cultural or neurodiversity issues at play. These factors could have led to them behaving in a way that made you feel they were trying to undermine you, though their intention may have very different. In another example, you may feel that Janet dislikes you because she always seems to leave you off the group emails. This means that you are less informed that your colleagues and you conclude that she thinks that you are less important than everybody else. You start to build up resentment against Janet and look for all of the ways that she is letting you down, convinced that she has a personal vendetta against you. And when you start to look for faults you will find faults, and your behaviour will tell Janet that you don't trust her, which damages relationships further. However, may might have happened is that Janet is using an old distribution list and through carelessness, has failed to update it with your name on it. If we understood that was the reason we would have a very different view of what was happening then if we are absolutely convinced that we are being deliberately excluded. So assumptions about intention become a factor. As soon as we start using our personal lens to judge other people's behaviour, we are adding in a whole layer of subjective conjecture and judgements, which affects behaviour and feelings and can make matters 10 times worse. We may also make judgements about what someone's reaction will be if we were to give them bad news or challenge their behaviour. Maybe this is because we would react badly in that situation, although most people respond appropriately if bad news or negative feedback is given in a constructive way. But because we assume the worst reaction we prepare for it and perhaps over prepare - so we go into the conversation expecting a fight. Again this can actually increase the discomfort and raise the stakes, when having a low key conversation may actually solve the problem without so many feathers being ruffled.

B is for Tackle the BALL not the Player


This is linked to the previous point. When we have made assumptions about intention and reactions, it is too easy to start to assign characteristics to personality and to assume that someone is lazy or vindictive or sly. Criticising someone's personality is hurtful because there's nothing they can do about that. You may have judged their personality incorrectly, so the second key when having a difficult conversation is to tackle the ball not the player.


This means focusing on the behaviour that we see and the impact that it has on us and or other people - particularly impact that can be quantified. It is of course OK to say that a behaviour makes you feel a certain way; that is a justified issue to raise with somebody else, but we mustn't generalise or mind-read as we are very likely to get some things wrong. If we get some elements wrong the other person will naturally call into question everything. Focus on the facts you are much more likely to have a constructive conversation than if you start criticising personality and intentions. C is for CLARITY


The third element to ensuring a successful difficult conversation is to be clear. Clear about what the specific problem is and clear about the outcomes that you wish to see. Being as specific as possible about the change you would like someone to make, or the specific behaviour that caused the problem in the first place, make the feedback feel manageable. It may not be comfortable. It may not be welcome. But at least it will be something specific that the other person can digest, focus on, and do something about. Finally make sure you start a difficult conversation with proper preparation. That is not to say you have planned the whole conversation, rather that you are clear about how you are going to start that conversation, you are clear about the outcomes that you would like to achieve, and to have that conversation when you are in a calm frame of mind.


If someone has angered or upset you, let those raw emotions settle before you decide to raise the issue with them. However, don't leave it too long because if you leave it too long and that may imply that it's not that important.


Difficult Conversations Bite-Size Training

Our half-day ready-written training session is highly interactive and covers how to prepare for a difficult conversation, how to keep on and track and lots of practical good practice hints to use. It includes 21 practical tips including these...


12 Tips for Having Successful Difficult Conversations

  1. Have a clear objective for the conversation. Is it just to provide information/raise awareness or is it to solve a problem to agree an action plan? Make this clear at the start.

  2. Plan how you will open the conversation but leave the rest a little more flexible. If there are 3 or 4 things you want to raise, make a note of them, but don’t raise them all at once.

  3. Say what you need to say (without it turning into a speech) and then ask for input from the other person before going further.

  4. Stay on topic. This will make it easier to manage and avoid confusion.

  5. Give it the time it needs. Don’t squeeze it in between calls, but equally don’t drag it out either.

  6. Don’t be afraid of silence or emotions. The other person will need time to digest the information if it is a surprise. A pause also has a calming effect and can help us connect better.

  7. If the other person reacts angrily or tries to provoke a reaction, acknowledge their feelings but don’t accept them as fact. Take a time out if necessary.

  8. Make sure that you don’t over-generalise, mind-read or make assumptions. What drives their behaviour may be very different to what drives yours.

  9. Be empathetic but remain firm. Your feelings /rights are just as valid as the other person’s.

  10. Always show respect toward the person, even if you totally disagree with them. Maintaining a relationship is usually more important that proving yourself right or winning a battle.

  11. If a problem needs to be solved or behaviour needs to change work on a solution together. WHAT you want to change may be fixed in your mind, but HOW it is changed should be down to both of you.

  12. Don’t keep going over the same points. Once they’ve been discussed move forwards or you’ll just be scratching an open wound.




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