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Student Insights

How to handle difficult conversations at work

Author: ICAEW Insights

Published: 04 Apr 2024

two women colleagues businesswomen having a difficult conversation in an office meeting room sat on white chairs in front of windows

Working life can sometimes mean having challenging discussions with colleagues, clients and managers. Here’s how to approach these situations with professionalism and confidence.

Conflict in the workplace can take many forms – a personal grievance, a problem between employee and manager, or disagreement between team members. It may be stress-related, a misunderstanding or a contentious issue that needs to be resolved. 

“All professionals need to learn how to handle these situations,” says Liz Sebag-Montefiore, director of career consultancy 10Eighty. “Good communication relies on active listening and questioning techniques - skills that are acquired through experience and practice.” 

Here, Liz shares her advice on the steps you can take to smooth the process, whether you’re leading the conversation or find yourself on the receiving end.

When you’re leading the conversation

Be prepared

First, think about whether you’re the right person to have the conversation. “Most discussions around performance, conduct, absence or personal issues are the responsibility of the line manager,” explains Liz. 

Though it can be tempting to put off difficult conversations, it’s best to tackle issues as soon as they’re identified, before they become more complicated or entrenched. Before the meeting, check internal policies and procedures for handling grievances and discipline. Plan what you’re going to say, gathering all the necessary facts and evidence, and anticipating any questions. Where you hold the meeting is important, too – you should aim for a one-to-one conversation in private. 

“Face to face is likely to be more effective than phone or email, so the other person can see the matter is being taken seriously,” advises Liz. “How formal is appropriate for the situation you’re handling? Sitting opposite someone at a table indicates formality, whereas sitting next to someone may be seen as less threatening.”

Take charge

You should remain calm, professional and in control of the conversation and how it progresses. “Wanting to be liked and to maintain a good relationship with the other person should not cloud your judgement,” says Liz. 

Get straight to the point – explain the purpose of the meeting, outline the structure of the discussion, and reassure the other person about confidentiality where relevant. “You may want to put them at ease by asking open questions rather than being overly procedural, but that depends on the nature of the problem.” 

Refer to your notes, concentrating on the specifics and evidence. “Focus on the issue, not the person, and be objective and non-judgemental,” Liz adds. You may have to deal with negative or combative emotions, so be respectful and empathetic – but ready to adapt your approach. “You may start by being quite expansive and friendly, but find that a firmer style is needed to conclude the meeting and agree a way forward,” Liz explains. Make sure you take notes so that you have a clear and accurate record of the conversation.

Move forward

The ideal outcome of your conversation is for the other person to acknowledge the issue, and for you to reach a compromise or agree on a way forward together. To do this, says Liz, “You need to give them time and space to respond and explain. They may need to let off steam, so try to be open-minded and don’t jump to conclusions. Acknowledge their concerns and any mitigating circumstances, and aim to explore the issues together.” 

Use good questioning to keep the conversation on track and avoid diversions and repetition. Then focus on next steps by asking for their proposals on how to resolve the situation. Discuss the options and agree on a way forward, making sure you document the agreement and share it with the other person. “Outline the agreed outcomes with the dates and standards required, any support or training to be provided, and the consequences if the agreement is breached,” Liz advises. “You should also arrange a follow-up meeting to monitor progress, and ensure the provision of support where agreed.”

Liz’s golden rule

“Good communication, active listening, clarity, empathy and sensitivity are all important. Adapt the old saw about walking a mile in someone else’s shoes; say unto others how you would want it said unto you.”

When you’re on the receiving end

Be professional

Be open and receptive, both in your communication and your body language. “Listen carefully to what the other person has to say, and maintain your composure as best you can,” says Liz. Ask questions to ensure you fully understand the issue, why it’s being discussed and how the next steps will be agreed. “Make it clear if you need any explanation or clarification, but be mindful of your tone and participate respectfully in a two-way and constructive dialogue.” 

Above all, try not to react emotionally, even if you feel as though the situation is unfair. “Negative emotions can cause breakdowns in communication,” says Liz, “so try to be positive, see things from their point of view and focus on working towards a common ground.” Take your time responding to questions, and ask for space to go away and think more about the discussion if you need to. 

Try to end on a positive note, even if the conversation was difficult. “Thank the other person for their time, and take the opportunity to assert your commitment to the company and your career path,” Liz advises.

Be a problem-solver

In some cases, you may already be aware of an issue, and can come prepared with possible solutions. Otherwise, it’s a case of engaging actively and positively in a productive discussion. “Employees are seen as competent and efficient when they offer positive and constructive suggestions in conversations about difficult or contentious issues,” says Liz. “Your proposed solutions may not be perfect, but being prepared to engage with the discussion signals proactivity and a commitment to overcoming issues.” 

Try to see constructive criticism as a useful learning opportunity. Ask questions to clarify any misunderstandings, and ensure you get your ideas and opinions across in a respectful, professional manner. “A willingness to adapt and improve, and to make reasonable compromises are key to an effective outcome,” Liz adds. 

Difficult conversations ideally end with the next steps agreed and documented. What will be changed, modified or improved going forward? How will this be monitored and measured? What does success look like? Ensure you know what’s expected of you, and ask if anything is not clear.

Liz’s golden rule

“Be realistic. Things go wrong, mistakes are made, and change is inevitable. It’s not about being right, or ‘winning’. A productive conversation is about hearing and understanding, and being heard and understood, so that you can learn and grow in your role.”

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