Managing Difficult Conversations

How to get the most positive impact from a difficult conversation

By Scott Hunter

Scott is Oakwood's Associate Consultant and works in our Associate Team
More from Scott >>

During the working life it will be necessary for managers to have those difficult conversations with members of their team. These can lead to a new understanding and an agreed way forward, and an improvement in performance and working relationships. However, this is often not the case, and they have much more negative impact. Below are some points on how to have these conversations in a constructive manner, which is much more likely to result in a positive outcome.

Be prepared

As with any interview or planned conversation it is important to prepare, maybe more so when the conversation may be difficult. Be clear about what you want to achieve and structure the meeting to achieve this. The preparation can take some time, wherever possible give yourself the time to prepare properly. The things you need to consider when preparing are:

• Location – ensure that the location is appropriate and not likely to get interruptions
• Plan enough time – ensure that you have sufficient time to have a constructive and deep conversations. Build in some contingency time in case issues get mentioned that have to be dealt with there and then.
• Likely reactions – individuals react differently to situations, knowing the person well may help you anticipate the likely response. Be prepared to deal with the emotional fall out that may happen in the interview.
• Evidence – Ensure that you have the appropriate documentation and evidence to support the basis of the conversation.
• Policy – Has your organisation got a policy on these type of meetings? Ensure that your actions are in line with this. Should the person be offered the opportunity to be accompanied, what are the potential outcomes and what records need to be maintained?
• Equipment- Ensure that you have the appropriate equipment/supplies required. If you are taking notes ensure that you have enough paper and pens, always have a couple of spare in case one doesn’t work.

Inform the other person

Accepting that you need to take enough time to prepare, it only seems fair that you provide the other person the time required to prepare themselves. Let the other person know in plenty of time that you need to have the conversation, be clear about the subject of the meeting. If the meeting does fall within your disciplinary procedures ensure that you provide the time, information and offer of being accompanied as required.
Agree a mutually beneficial time to have the conversation that allows the other person to prepare. However ensure that the time agreed is close enough to events to make the feedback useful.

Be specific

When interviewing the other person be specific in what you are saying. Generalisations are an easy conversational habit to drop in to. However this creates problems as the generalisation of behaviours or outcomes are not specific enough to be dealt with. Using terms such as “you are always late” is probably untrue. The use of generalisations can allow the other party to take control of the interview and challenge you.
This can allow them to make comments such as “I was on time today and yesterday” this will put you on the back foot and damage your credibility. Being specific will reduce the likelihood of this happening, having the evidence and documentation will make it impossible to challenge the facts. It is so important that you are specific and have the evidence to support you.
It is possible to evidence and be specific about performance and behaviours alike. Behaviours can be observed by yourself, recording of conversations with customers and feedback can be used. All these provide evidence on the behaviours. Performance is normally measured by an output, such as a deadline, KPI or job description.

However care needs to be taken in making the identification of the negative behaviour to ensure that it is specific. Comments such as “you are not a good people person” are not going to provide anything specific to work on, and they are again too general. Thus allowing the observation to be challenged. Be specific on what behaviours were witnessed, this could be the language used, tone of voice, body language and also the impact this had. If your organisation has a competency framework or code of discipline these can be useful in identifying behaviours that are unacceptable.

Separate the person from the behaviour

When identifying negative performance or behaviour in a person this can easily be considered a personal attack and create a defensive response. It is important to separate the behaviour and the person in your language and approach to help prevent that happening. If the information was specific and evidenced then there should be no argument about its existence.

Therefore it is not so much about the existence of the behaviour that should be discussed, it should be about the circumstances around it and the causes of the behaviour. Once agreement has been reached that the events, behaviour happened it is important to separate this from the person. This is easier said than done, again using policies, frameworks and other indicators may be useful in achieving this.

Try to void using the word “you,” if possible talk about the behaviour instead. You can isolate the behaviour by using comments similar to “let’s look at the behaviour of late attendance” you can then enter in to a discussion about the impact that late attendance has on a team, and if there is an attendance policy what should happen to those that attend late. This approach allows you to remove the person from the behaviour. 

Using commonly understood measures of acceptable behaviours and performance also assist in removing the personal element from the discussion. It is then not just your opinion of the negative behaviour or performance, the behaviour or performance does not meet the expectations of the organisation. Using an attendance issue it is possible to link this to the attendance policy, and often attendance is linked to a competency framework. This could be such things as negative impact on the team, increase work for other team members etc.

2 way conversation

This process should be a 2 way conversation. It is therefore important that you provide enough opportunity for the other person to fully participate. Take the time to try and gain an understanding as to what there thinking was behind the actions they took. Learning to look at the situation from the other view point may well make it look completely differently. Keeping an open mind is important to allow the other person to feel that what they have to say is going to be listened to.
If the person is quiet and not engaging in the process then change your questions to encourage them to talk. Ask more open questions and use ones that ask them to think and provide answers about their thought process behind their actions. Questions such as “what were your desired outcomes when you talked to the customer” this type of question will allow you to examine their motivators and this can be used as a platform to see if their actions and behaviours were effective in achieving their outcome.

The objective of allowing the conversation to be 2 way, and valuing what the other party’s view is to get to a mutual understanding and acceptance of what happened and the expected standards to be achieved. This approach is more likely to get the other person to see the behaviour in the cold light of day in an objective way and to explore options in preventing it happening again.

Be clear about consequences

Changing behaviours will not happen without first changing thinking. Motivational reinforcement theory states that the consequences of good and bad behaviour have to be clearly laid down. Make it crystal clear what the possible outcomes are to be if there is not an improvement and a meeting of the expected standards.
These actions may be stipulated in the organisations code of conduct, if so use these and explain the next steps. What are the next steps that have been agreed, it is good practice to have a clear timeline for this action plan to be completed by. Ensure that the actions and required improvements are measurable, if it cannot be measured then no further action is available.

Finishing the conversation

Conclude the meeting with a clear summary, covering what has been discussed. The reasons behind the behaviour, the agreed actions of all parties involved and the timeline. Build in appropriate milestones to check progress to keep track and identify any potential issues early. Be really clear about what will happen if the required improvements are meet and what happens if they are not met. Keep a record of the meeting and provide all parties with this, allow them to make their own comments and try to get everyone to sign an agreed account.

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