Dealing with Difficult Conversations

Dealing with Difficult Conversations

One of the most common issues that I have to deal with in advising clients is an apparent unwillingness by their managers to have difficult conversations with their employees. This can lead to poor performance, attendance or behaviour not being addressed. There is a significant benefit for any organisation in nipping that issue in the bud.

As a result, it is important for managers to feel comfortable in approaching any difficult conversation. As part of our training materials for managers, we have developed a training course on how to deal with those difficult discussions, however, this article gives you a few pointers as to how you can deal with these issues.

Although the article centres around some practical advice and guidance, you must also consider the legal aspects, because the way someone behaves, or their absences may relate to a disability, or some other protected characteristic. Every situation will be different, therefore before even tackling the difficult conversation, make sure you are considering the employee’s situation. Failure to do so may be regarded as less favourable treatment, harassment or even discrimination. If in doubt, get the advice.

Rather than focus on why the manager would rather not have the conversation, such as embarrassment at the topic to be discussed, or a fear the employee will react negatively, it is better to focus on the positive reasons as to why you need to have the conversation: critical feedback can help improvement; talking to them allows underlying issues to be discussed, and letting the employee know why their behaviour is not at the standards you expect can lead to positive outcomes for both parties.

There are 4 key steps in facing up to these conversations, which are;


Before you start, consider what would be a positive outcome. You need to make sure you are fully aware of the issues, and gathering any relevant documentation or other evidence. It is important to think about the type of character you are dealing with and what approach to take with that character type. You need to think about an appropriate time and location. Also, what people sometimes forget is that you need to leave sufficient time to have the discussion. Do not cut short the discussion because you have only allotted 30 minutes – make sure there is time for the discussion to develop.  I always tell managers to prepare an agenda in advance, covering the topics they want to discuss. Having that document allows the discussion to focus.



You must set the right tone. Always begin the conversation in a professional and non-threatening manner. Clarity is everything, so make sure when you are describing the issue you are doing it in a way the employee fully understands. Try to focus on the issue, rather than the person. It is important that you are trying to remain positive and engaged, so be aware of not just the language you use, but also your body language.



As part of your preparation in advance and the agenda that is being created, think about some of the questions that you want to ask, but most importantly you need to properly listen to the answers – don’t just rush onto the next question on your list. If you properly listen, the employee will feel they are being taken seriously. Use more open and probing questions, as this will allow you to gather more information from the employee about what the issue really is.



This is the crucial part of any difficult conversation – you need to agree on a way forward with the employee. This helps them take responsibility for resolving the issue. Some of the key things that must be agreed upon include a deadline or review date; how the development or improvements will be measured, and what support the employee will require.

The absolutely essential part about having a difficult conversation is following up in writing and then making sure you follow through with any agreed action plan.

We know that the majority of people do not like conflict and would rather avoid a potentially uncomfortable situation, but nothing good comes of ignoring bad behaviour.   Take it from me that if you ignore a problem it will not get better by itself.


If you think your managers would benefit from training, then please contact for further details.

Graham Millar
Partner, Employment Law



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