“We need to talk”: Navigating difficult conversations at work

Navigating difficult conversations at work

Sarah Shaw, Partner and Head of our Education Practice, shares an article by John Raftery, Higher Education Leadership Consultant and Coach, discussing what 'difficult conversations' are and how to manage these in the workplace

Every day, all over the world, there are supervisors, managers, or CEOs sitting down with someone who reports to them, or a co-worker, in order to have a ‘difficult conversation’.  A ‘difficult conversation’ is one which is about anything you find it hard to talk about. Examples in the work setting include, poor work performance, serious misconduct, the need to terminate someone’s employment, or a supply contract. People rarely enjoy conflict or confrontation.  Most people routinely go to some lengths to avoid the discomfort attached to difficult conversations. Fortunately, much has been learned about how to navigate these conversations with honesty, empathy and dignity. We can minimize the associated stress and anxiety for both parties. The purpose of this article is to synthesize that knowledge in order to be of practical use to any supervisor, manager, or CEO faced with the need to hold a difficult conversation. Only if this appears likely to be of value to you should you read on.

Be realistic with yourself and the other person. No matter how much preparation you do you will not be able to eliminate anxiety around difficult conversation. The best that can be done is to reduce it, so it is not overwhelming, and manage what remains.  

Categories of difficult conversation

Difficult conversations can be categorized into two types. Those where you have the power to unilaterally impose an outcome, such as in the work setting, dealing with poor performance or the decision to make lay-offs, and those where you do not have that power, such as relationship difficulties or problems with a peer coworker. Each category has specific challenges and solutions. The informal organization contains many coalitions. There is almost always some sort of power imbalance (for example, based on gender, race, class, or some other) even if it does not stretch to the power to unilaterally impose an outcome.

Yelling is not a strategy

If we were to reach judgement based on what we see on TV news and in Social Media, it would be easy to believe we are living in an age of uncivil discourse, characterized by mean, snarky exchanges. Broadcast and social media have a tendency to amplify the spectacle, the monstrous and the extreme, so reality may not be as coarsened as in the portrayals.  Raising your voice or refusing to engage, achieves little of lasting value.  Fortunately, much is now known about how to shift away from blame towards a ‘learning stance’ and how have more productive conversations which are more likely to lead to acceptance, change and improvement. Amid the vulgar din, many people are working on how to achieve more compassionate connection and peaceful resolutions to disagreements.  For example, one of the overarching objectives of education for hundreds of years has been to help us towards a civil discourse, the ability to traverse uncomfortable, disputed terrain, to reach agreement, or, if we must disagree, to do so without killing or damaging each other. 

I am grateful in particular for two valuable resources which I have drawn on for these notes, the Harvard Negotiation Project[1], and the process known as Nonviolent Communication (NVC)[2].

Think like a mediator: The three stories

Every difficult conversation involves three stories, your story, their story, and an invisible third story which would be told by a keen, neutral observer with no vested interest.  The Harvard Negotiation Project (HNP) illustrates this with the issue of the tensions between the demands from car drivers and cyclists on city streets. The third story is the one seen by the city planners who understand why each group is frustrated and attempt to find an optimal solution. HNP have found in their work with thousands of people that change is more effectively achieved if you start with this third story rather than your own first story.

Observing without evaluating

When we label or blame someone, they feel criticized, defend themselves and likely attack. This is unlikely to lead to a productive conversation and unlikely to achieve positive change. If our goal is achieving change, not punishment, we have learned that it is more effective to separate observation from evaluation. Criticize the behavior not the person. The liberating change in tone is powerfully illustrated by these three verses from the late Marshall Rosenberg[3]:

 I can handle your telling me

What I did or didn’t do.

And I can handle your interpretations,

But please don’t mix the two.

If you want to confuse any issue, I can tell you how to do it:

Mix together what I do

With how you react to it.

Tell me that you’re disappointed

With the unfinished chores you see,

But calling me “irresponsible”

Is no way to motivate me.

Don’t put sugar on a hand grenade

Delivering a difficult message is like throwing a hand grenade and no amount of tact will eliminate the pain.[4] Tact is useful and desirable in protecting dignity, but it is respectful to the other person to be clear and candid. Clarity is doubly important as people find it hard to process detail after receiving an unpleasant shock. It is far better though, to get out of the hand grenade business entirely by having more regular communication and learning conversations such that understanding evolves over time rather than through delivery of an unexpected, painful message.

Actionable insights:

  1. Preparation: Clear time. Twice. There will be tension. This is unavoidable. Following these guidelines will help reduce but not eliminate it. Clear time, if possible, some days beforehand to check you have all information you need and to anticipate and prepare for a range of possible reactions. Clear some time just before the meeting to center yourself, regulate your breathing, find a place of empathy and clarity about what is required.
  2. During the conversation: Let go of trying to control their reaction. The other person is entitled to their feelings. All you can control is your own delivery and the words you choose to use. A good technique for maintaining perspective is to imagine yourself in 3 months, or 3 years, looking back on this day and this meeting.  If the intensity becomes too much either for you or the other person/ people, it is often useful to call for a short break. Time to take some outside air, a walk around the block, can be useful in regaining balance and perspective. 
  3. Detachment: Begin with the ‘third story’. Think like a mediator. Leave your emotions out of it. Stick to observable facts. Experience suggests that there is benefit too in asking the other person for their observations on those ‘third story facts’. The information you have been given may be incomplete or disputed. Better to find this out early. Arriving at an agreed version of this third story provides a solid foundation for a productive conversation.
  4. Observation: Separate observation from evaluation: Judge the behavior not the person. (People get defensive if they are attacked)
  5. Honesty: Don’t try to ‘put sugar on a hand grenade’. Empathetic honesty is a form of respect in a difficult conversation. It requires bravery on your part. It is more respectful to the other person.
  6. Empathy: How would you like this news delivered to you? Think carefully about the words you use. Actively listen, with empathy. In cases where you have ‘news’ to give, don’t prolong the suffering of the other person, don’t prevaricate, get to the point quickly and humanely.
  7. Space: Allow time for the other person to process what has been said. Leave space in the conversation. Expect that the other person may need to collect their thoughts in the silence, or to vent.  For example: "This will be difficult for you to hear, but we have placed you at risk of redundancy. In the rest of this conversation, I'd like to give you time and space to understand why we've made this decision, how it affects you and how we can help you.” Be prepared to remain calm while they defend themselves and possibly criticize and attack you. They are entitled to respond, acknowledging what they have said is not the same as agreeing.
  8. Positivity: Leadership sets the tone. Your energy will be apparent always. Shift your stance to that of curiosity rather than blame. A ‘learning conversation’ is not a battle of messages. Starting from the Third Story, seek to understand the other person’s view, explain yours, try for a shared understanding. Speak from a place of positivity and concern, not just for the individual but also for the team and the wider organization for which you carry responsibility.
  9. Collaboration: One characteristic of a productive conversation is that you seek to navigate to a position where you invite the other person to collaborate with you in order to bring about the needed change. If it is a negotiation between two more or less equal parties, both with ‘red lines’, it is useful to regularly, and jointly, revisit the shared objective.
  10. Self-care: Imparting bad news such as a layoff, is troubling. The giver of the news frequently benefits from having someone else (a spouse, a trusted advisor or coach) to talk it through with before or after.

[1] “Difficult Conversations”, (1999) Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton, Sheila Heen, Penguin Books.

[2] Nonviolent Communication: A language of life” (2015) Marshall B. Rosenberg, Puddledancer Press.

[3] Rosenberg (2015), p25.

[4] Stone, Patton, Heen (1999) p xvii.

For more information please contact Sarah Shaw


Christine Maggs at 28/01/2021 22:56 said:

clear, insightful comment ... could be used to have a conversation with other managers as to how to approach difficult matters

John Raftery at 31/01/2021 14:38 said:

Thank you. The note was drawn from dozens of conversations with people who I work with. We are all interested to learn more, and build on what we know so far. Interested to hear your ideas and experiences so we can add to what’s here, share experience and provide good advice.

Catherine Harper at 31/01/2021 14:53 said:

This is a very helpful piece. In my experience of this aspect of leadership and management, the point about providing space as is knowing when to stop speaking is important. We all have a tendency to want to fill awkward or uncomfortable silences, and I have found being very self-disciplined - to the point of deliberately stopping myself talking - about this is critical and provides respectful space for the person to process, digest, ask questions, be emotional in a number of ways, and so on, without you taking that time and space away by speaking unnecessarily. Thank you, really helpful. Catherine Harper.

Sarah Shaw at 01/02/2021 09:38 said:

Knowing when to stay silent is so important and certainly takes practice, made even more tricky when conversations need to be held remotely. Juggling speaking and silence on a Zoom/Teams call is much more difficult without the body language clues and nuances so much more easily picked up on when in the same room. Without great care it is to easy to become a verbal bulldozer in these situations, so taking a breath - even holding it - before talking, carries more weight than it ever did!

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