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How to Have Difficult Conversations at Work

Two office workers having a conversation

It's a fact of life that employers must occasionally have uncomfortable conversations with their employees.

Few managers enjoy this part of their job, but whether you're telling someone to work harder or reprimanding them for their behaviour towards a colleague, such discussions are very important if you want to cultivate a productive and harmonious work environment.

In this blog, we'll share some do's and dont's to help you navigate these difficult conversations and hopefully make them a little less awkward for everyone involved.

What to do

When it comes to having awkward one-to-one chats with your employees, there are certain things that you should always keep in mind. Here are some rules to follow next time you're initiating a potentially thorny conversation at work:

  • Before you begin, think carefully about what you want to say and how you're going to say it. Using the wrong words or the wrong tone may end up making the problem even worse.
  • Try your best to be part of the solution. This will show your employee that you want a positive outcome for everyone and are willing to make the effort and meet them halfway.
  • Show empathy where possible. Bear in mind that your employee may see things differently to you, and even if you're the boss, it helps to show that you understand their point of view.
  • At the end of the conversation, make sure you and your employee are on the same page to avoid any confusion about the next steps.


What NOT to do

  • Don't be overly formal. It's good to be professional, but go too far and this will make the other person feel even more uncomfortable.
  • Never leap headlong into a potentially sensitive conversation without thinking about what you want to say first.
  • Avoid using emotional language and focusing too much on your own feelings. Try not to make the conversation about you; instead, focus on the problem at hand.
  • Don't let the discussion turn into a lecture. If you're the only person talking, something's gone wrong - this should be a two-way conversation where both parties communicate in order to agree on a solution.

Tips for more productive workplace conversations

Now that we've got the do's and the dont's out of the way, here are a few extra tips to make those difficult workplace conversations a little easier.


1. Create an open environment

When you sit down for a difficult conversation with one of your workers, try to create an environment where both parties can be open and honest without any repercussions.

When one or both parties enter the conversation with a negative attitude, it can hinder your chances of reaching a positive outcome. Begin the conversation with positive intentions, whether that means coming up with an action plan or resolving a conflict.


2. Focus on facts, not emotions

In the do's list above, we mentioned that you should always think about what you say before you say it. Planning the specific things that you want to bring up will always make the talk go easier, even if you don't always get the answers you'd hope for.

When planning what to say, be sure to build your points around hard facts. Without them, you risk allowing the conversation to go off on a tangent rather than staying grounded and focused on the problems at hand.

Think about the following:

  • What occurred to warrant this conversation in the first place?
  • What impact did that incident have?
  • What behaviours need to be changed to rectify the problem?
  • What will happen if nothing changes?

Having the answers to these questions will allow you to focus on objective facts rather than your subjective feelings about the situation.


3. End the conversation with a solution

At the end of any difficult workplace conversation, you should always aim to establish some positive 'next steps' so that you and your employee are both clear about what's expected.

You may already have some actions in mind going into the meeting, but it is always important to discuss these and come to a mutual agreement if possible.

When conducting difficult conversations with employees, thoughtful managers tend to get better results than vindictive bosses who just want to deliver a telling-off. When your staff see you implementing meaningful changes, they'll be more likely to follow your good example.


Further Reading

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