How to have a difficult conversation…

Addressing concerns in the work place can be uncomfortable.

Most of us naturally tend to avoid conflict and sometimes postpone the difficult conversation, or at worst, don’t have it at all.

As a result, the concerns persist, and often times worsen.

Left unaddressed matters reach a point of no return.

It is not uncommon for people to be advised of their errors or even non-performance for the first time just prior to their termination.

This unfair on both the organisation and the person involved.

Especially, when early intervention could have resulted in changed behaviours and a positive outcome for all concerned.

So how do we communicate with our people in a meaningful and effective way?

The answer, in our experience, is four-fold.


Firstly, we recommend frequency.

In today’s work environment the manager must make time for frequent conversations with her/his team members.

As a rule, a fortnight should not pass without at least one meaningful engagement with every member. This not only builds a relationship of trust but also provides context on the human person – their story, their passions, their sense of purpose.

These interactions need not be long and boring. In fact, brief but authentic conversations have proven to be very powerful.

For only if we truly understand our people and they us, can we perform together to reach our shared goals and outcomes.

2. Patterns or One-offs

Secondly, we need to differentiate between patterns and one-offs.

If someone is late to work, having a bad day, going through a particularly difficult time or even if they’ve made a terrible mistake – but do so out of character – that must be considered as simply that – a one-off occurrence.

For in fact we are all human and imperfect. With that comes the need for a degree of tolerance – forgiveness and understanding. And understanding in these situations means comprehension and compassion.

Patterns, on the other hand, tell a different story. If over time, for example, an otherwise good employee arrives regularly late to work – there is a genuine need for a conversation.


Rather than confrontation, we encourage having a lens of consultation.

Positive enquiry is one of the most effective ways to address concerns in relationships – not just at work but even in our personal lives.

When we enter the conversation with an open and inquisitive mindset of seeking to understand rather than be understood we may learn that the reasons for certain actions are more important than the actions themselves.

An otherwise great employee has formed a pattern of arriving late at work. Even a brief but appreciative inquiry may suggest that he or she has to care for a sick family member or needs to drop off a child at school – instead of anything more serious. Perhaps the answer in such a situation is just more flexible work hours.

In many instances, a frank conversation may reveal that the person is simply unaware that s/he has fallen into a habit of doing certain things that are antithetical to the workplace culture. When made aware they are often remorseful and keen make amends.

Of course, there will be times when a conversation results in a legitimate need to address a serious issue.

Here, it is critical to separate the behaviour from the person.

As the desired outcome is not a change of person or even personality – not the least because this is almost impossible – but because this is all that is required.

It is important to avoid language such as ’you always’ or ‘disappointed’ – these words leave no room for action. They are counter productive.

Rather, an empathetic yet direct addressing of the concern providing examples and the context of its impact is what can be most effective.

For example, “What you did yesterday on the factory floor is not what we are about. It affected the team working on that project and as a result we let our client down.”

4. Agreed Outcomes

Finally, there must be consensus on the future.

An agreement that negative behaviours will be discontinued or modified, or where there is inaction a commitment to agreed action.

Perhaps an email or note to confirm what has been discussed and what is expected. This way there is no ambiguity or misunderstanding.

It is worthwhile raising the matter of good manners as a useful aide with any and all human interactions – particularly those that are sensitive.

For where there is trust (from frequency of engagement) and good manners,
you have an environment that is far more conducive to exploring even the most awkward and difficult conversations.