How to handle difficult conversations at work


Very few people relish the thought of confrontation, especially at work, but avoiding difficult conversations isn’t always an option especially in a managerial role. Purposefully overlooking problematic behaviour or attitudes might make your life a little easier short term, but in the long run, it’s best to deal with it head-on in a professional manner. Ultimately, your colleagues will respect you more for taking action than letting the situation go on.

Here are our top tips for handling these conversations like a pro.

Be prepared

The main reason we don’t like confrontation is we worry that the other person will react badly to what we have to tell them. No one enjoys having their mistakes or failures pointed out to them and they very well may be upset, indignant or even angry if they think they’ve been unfairly singled out.

The best thing you can do is to prepare well before bringing anything up so the person you are confronting doesn’t feel like it’s come out of the blue or that you’re ambushing them.

Choose the right setting

Where you hold the meeting will help set the tone of the conversation, so choose wisely. If you can, book a private meeting room to allow for privacy and face to face contact.  If you can’t meet in person right now, try setting up a one-to-one video chat at a time that suits you both.

Wherever you choose to meet, make sure there’s no one else within earshot. Embarrassing your employee in front of the rest of the team isn’t productive. In fact, no one that’s not directly involved or affected by the situation should be aware the meeting is taking place.

Two business women having coffee break in high-end restaurant


You’ll need to run through what you want to say before you hold the meeting so that you get your point across clearly. You don’t need to write it all out as you don’t want to come across scripted but practicing and preparing for any questions or points they might raise will help you stay calm and collected.

Listen to their side of the story

You’ll also need to be prepared to listen to them and try not to dismiss what they have to say, particularly if the issue involves another staff member. Everyone deserves the chance to explain their side, so make sure you give them the time to do this and attentively listen to what they say.

Give them space and time

No one is their best self when they’re put on the spot so make sure you give the person time to consider what you’ve said by speaking slowly and pausing to let them digest what’s being said. . That way you’ll allow them to come up with well thought out responses rather than defensive outbursts.

Two businessmen sitting opposite at table, confrontation and negotiation

Prepare evidence

If you’re relying only on your opinion or hearsay from other people, your employee may have cause to accuse you of being unfair. The more real evidence of problematic behaviour you have, the easier it will be to state your case.

Avoid emotional language

Try not to stray into using emotional language. This means you should avoid talking about your personal feelings or expressing any personal disappointment you have. It will only add unnecessary emotional drama to what is an already difficult conversation.

Create a plan for progress

Once you have addressed the problem, you should be able to formulate a plan for how their behaviour can improve. Depending on what the issue is, you could put in place regular performance reviews, schedule catch-up meetings or come up with an action plan of how they can be supported to help improvements.

Business Meeting

Document the meeting

If you need to take further disciplinary action in the future, it will help if you have a full record of your conversation. You should include everything that was discussed including your plan for improvement and any next steps you have agreed upon.

Now you’re ready to handle any workplace confrontation that may arise like the pro you are.


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Posted on September 15, 2020