How to start a difficult conversation 

The person you are going to talk to isn’t going to like what you have to say. They are going to take it personally. You are going to challenge them and their reaction may be defensive, antagonistic or accusatory. 

As a senior manager concerned with the quality of people management within the organisation I was surprised at how many managers felt ill equipped to have a ,”difficult” conversation with one of their staff. Even some experience managers felt apprehensive and then there were the managers who tackled the situation like a bull in a china shop /head on confrontation such that they themselves became the subject of a bullying complaint. 

Maybe it was a back to work interview with a team member with a poor attendance record, a one to one with an individual who repeatedly missed deadlines, made cynical comments in team meetings and whose inconsistent work needed double checking or maybe it was inappropriate behaviour and comments made to and about colleagues. 

The policies and procedures for back to work interviews and one to one supervision sessions were clear never the less difficult conversations were frequently put off, took place but the individual thought it was just a chat or the confrontational nature of the meeting escalated the situation dragging in HR, the union and senior management. 

Some managers felt they would benefit from a script others suggested that some role play would give them practice and confidence. HR felt that anything that stoped routine management scenarios escalating  into formal procedures would be progress. Senior management were keen to improve the quality of people management seeing poor management as hand break on progress. 

We produced two corporate DVDs one on back to work interviews the other one to one supervision sessions. The scripts was drawn up by operational managers and HR and professional actors were employed to play the parts of manager and employee. Every manager in the organisation was given their own copy of each DVD. The managers induction programme and development programme was adapted to include a role playing session on, “difficult conversations”. 

Blair Mcpherson former Director ,author and blogger 


Security level: Public

More Blog Entries

Christmas Crackers

A table of middle aged, single, American women were preparing to eat a Christmas meal in the...

Gavin and Stacy

Taking words out of context and simply banning them as offensive does not take forward the...