3 Strategies For Handling Difficult Conversations At Work


Belinda Parmar OBE is the CEO of The Empathy Business and a corporate campaigner and can be found on LinkedIn here.

Difficult workplace conversations are rarely pleasant, and the reality is very few of us are very good at them. Similar to our response to stress and danger, interpersonal conflict triggers a fight or flight response—what psychologist Dan Goleman calls the “amygdala hijack.” So it’s natural that our instinct is to avoid these conversations at all costs. According to a 2019 study by VitalSmarts, one in four people has been putting off an uncomfortable conversation for at least six months, and an extraordinary 37% of people would consider quitting their job rather than having a difficult conversation!

But challenging conversations are a necessary part of our working life. Without them, people and businesses fail to grow, and unaddressed issues can lead to a toxic work culture. So it’s vital for leaders to know how to guide these discussions.

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3 Ways To Approach Difficult Workplace Conversations

It’s rare that people are naturally adept at navigating tough conversations, professionally or personally. Luckily, this is a skill that can be learned. If you’re looking to strengthen your ability to conduct difficult discussions in the workplace, consider these strategies.

1. Start by stating a positive intention.

When it comes to memory, humans are subject to what psychologists call the primacy and recency effects. Essentially, we’re more likely to retain the information we heard most recently or what we heard first. So, when it comes to any conversation, people are more likely to only remember how it began and how it ended.

If you’re leading a difficult workplace conversation, make use of the primacy effect and start with a positive statement. For example, if you have to tell someone they haven’t got their promotion, you might say, “Because I want our relationship to be built on honesty and transparency, I need to share some bad news.” This will ensure that, afterward, the recipient will remember that the conversation began gently.

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2. Don’t sugar-coat the difficult topic.

Old-school leadership training used to teach us about the “feedback sandwich,” where you offer some platitudes before getting to what you really want to say. However, this method doesn’t work as people can see through it, which ultimately undermines the conversation. It often also serves to create parent-child cultures, wherein the leaders treat less-senior colleagues like children, resulting in a lack of accountability and ownership amongst them.

During difficult conversations, what matters most is open, honest communication and empathy. Instead of distracting from the conversation’s purpose, own your decision and be straightforward with your news. You could say, “I made the decision not to promote you, and I want to explain why,” or simply, Unfortunately, this is not good news.”

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3. Try to balance the power dynamic.

When you deliver bad news, you’re inherently in a position of power during that conversation. By recognizing this, and finding ways to balance that power, you can provide a safe, productive space. This will allow the other person to comfortably share how they feel, which creates an opportunity for a true dialogue. For example, you can invite them to help determine the best way to move forward after the conversation ends. By doing this, you can avoid creating an environment where the recipient feels overly vulnerable.

As Professor Simon Baron-Cohen stated, Empathy is a skill like any other human skill. If you get a chance to practice, you can get better at it.While tough conversations will never be simple, you can make them easier with practice.


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