Mastering difficult conversations

Two shadowed figures in an office background

    Louisa Clarke is part of the Redefining Communications collective team and a verbal communication expert. She specialises in working with values-led organisations, giving clients the tools to feel equipped to lean in and have the really important – often difficult – conversations more frequently, more ethically, and more effectively. 

    She discussed some tips for navigating difficult conversations in season 4, episode 9 of our podcast, Redefining Communications with Jenni Field. We invited her to expand on those thoughts in this blog.

    Culturally, we are hugely conflict averse. Difficult conversations are so rarely modelled well that it’s no wonder for most of us the go-to strategy is to avoid them altogether.

    But here’s a reframe: when we’re equipped to have them, difficult conversations become a preventative and connecting measure instead of something to be avoided.

    It’s these conversations that can prevent future problems from popping up, and can be a hugely positive experience for everyone involved, leaving them better connected than before and nurturing an open, honest and responsible communicative culture in your organisation.

    Here are three of the most common tricky examples:

    1. Giving negative performance feedback

    Telling someone their performance needs improvement is a typical area many leaders dread. Providing constructive feedback is absolutely necessary to build a strong, high-performing team who can deliver on their individual and company objectives. And if you do it well – with truth, clarity, kindness, and empathy – giving negative feedback can show your team that you’re an honest and supportive leader with their best interests at heart.

    2. Handling conflicts within teams

    Conflicts happen. But burying your head in the sand won’t make them disappear. Sometimes people’s personalities, attitudes, or points of view clash. Other times it’s about diverging company requirements or objectives. Whatever the reason for the conflict, leaving it unaddressed will only make matters worse in the long run.

    Meet the situation with genuine curiosity rather than any assumptions or judgements. All parties involved need to feel seen and heard in their experience before they’ll be able to find a way forward. From here, leaders do sometimes need to boundary set around emotional responsibility: i.e. a team member might not be happy with a decision that has been made – you can empathise with them, but their emotional response and regulation is theirs and theirs alone to manage. And of course – leaders need to be modelling this if they’re expecting teams to be accountable too. 

    Prioritise equal voice in meetings where you can, and let everyone know their perspective is valued. When facing conflict, remember: we are hardwired for connection; we need this much more than we need to be agreed with! 

    3. Discussing salary and compensation

    As an employee, if you’ve ever had to ask your boss for a pay rise or negotiate a larger bonus when starting a new job, you’ll know how uncomfortable it can be to even bring the topic up. Here, preparation is key. Research and arm yourself with knowledge and evidence, and recognise and validate for yourself your own experience and trajectory. 

    Acknowledge, validate and permit any discomfort or nerves you’re feeling before you go in for the conversation. It’s all too easy to not even realise we’re resisting these perfectly natural feelings, and resistance will often make them worse. 

    Two things here can be true – it feels uncomfortable, and you know you deserve to be heard on this subject. Reminding yourself that if you don’t take the responsibility to broach this, you’re being passive in your career progression rather than actively driving things forward. 

    See raising your salary as both your right and responsibility, work with however you feel about doing that and these conversations will start to feel a little less daunting. 

    Maybe you’ve got a difficult conversation you need to have with an employee. If you don’t know where to begin, find here a step-by-step: 

    1. Preparing

    Before you even sit down together, identify the issue and the desired outcome. Take some time to figure out what needs to change and why you’re having this conversation. Write it down and make sure your proposed change is realistic and achievable. 

    Choose the right time and place. Comfort and privacy are important, after all, you want them to feel at ease. Plan an outline of what you’ll say, or in the heat of the moment the structure of the conversation might escape you.

    Acknowledge and manage your emotions. Your feelings – whatever they are – are valid, but it’s important you don’t bring them into the conversation. In fact, you want to make sure you accept them and address them before you even get in front of your employee. A conversation that’s charged with unresolved feelings may end up in a place that you didn’t intend it to go.

    • Start the difficult conversation

    Open with warmth and humanity. Set a positive tone and clearly communicate the purpose of the conversation – ensure you’re tapped into a desire to genuinely better connect with this employee. 

    Clarify what you are here to talk about. 

    Clarify the boundaries of this. What is the problem and why do you need to discuss it?

    Empathise with your employee, as they might have strong feelings too. Give them space to share their perspective. Remember, you’ve had time to prepare and deal with your own emotions first, but they might not have.

    Importantly: don’t jump straight into proposing a solution. As a leader or manager, you may know (or think you know) what the best outcome of this conversation is. But, once you’ve outlined the problem, let your employee speak and share how things have been for them. 

    • Navigating the conversation

    Make sure to ask open-ended questions and actively listen to their side of the story (listen to genuinely understand, not simply to respond). Invite them into a space of empowered responsibility where they suggest next steps or a solution for themselves. Share specific feedback, and work together to state expectations and set goals from here. 

    • Close with clarity and gratitude

    Before you leave, summarise the conversation and ensure you’re on the same page about the next steps. Offer support and resources, if needed, and set clear expectations for follow-up. Keep the tone of this human rather than formal. 

    And finally, don’t leave that conversation without thanking the employee for their time and understanding, and checking they’re ok. This is important, especially if the conversation is something they found uncomfortable or difficult to deal with in any way.

    When it comes to having difficult conversations, there’s no one-size-fits-all solution, but by understanding everyone’s needs and perspectives, we can build better workplaces. 

    If you need help in this area, drop us a line. We’ll support you by giving you the tools and knowledge to handle anything that comes up – going from chaos to calm as you uncover the root cause and fix issues for the long term.

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    Join our community

    Subscribe to join our community and we’ll be in touch with helpful advice and updates about how we can take your organisation from chaos to calm. Our community gets invited to a quarterly 90-minute Ask Me Anything online session with Jenni Field, as well as early access to events, discounts and research.

    • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.