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How to handle difficult conversations at work

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How do you tackle awkward conversations in the workplace? Charlie Taylor, Founder and CEO of Debut gives some key advice around changing behaviour habits and understanding the scenario from the other person’s perspective.

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Uncomfortable situations often arise in the workplace, and they’re not always easy to deal with. Executives, HR professionals and those in a managerial position are tasked with the duty of speaking with colleagues about a variety of issues, whether it be underperformance, denying someone a promotion, redundancy, or having to let go of an employee.

However difficult it may be, avoiding these conversations can lead to bigger problems in the workplace, including a dysfunctional working environment and lack of performance from demotivated staff. It is better for both managers and the rest of the team to have such conversations sooner rather than later than to avoid them all together. Ignoring issues can create larger problems that can ultimately have a more negative, longer-lasting impact on the team and business.

Failing to act because of the anxiety around confrontation is often why important decisions are postponed, creating an escalation of more serious issues. It’s not just the big things that can cause friction in the office, however; unwritten social behaviours that we expect our colleagues to abide by can, when broken, can be most distressing in a work environment.

Based on my experience, I would say the most common bad habits in the workplace include arriving late, having a messy workspace, excessive phone usage during work hours, distracting others and employees letting non-work-related issues affect their output.

Based on the above, these are my top five recommended strategies to help HR professionals, managers and executives approach conflict and handle difficult conversations at work:

  1. Show leadership

As an executive, manager, CEO or similar, you are looked up to by your employees and every decision you make can have a trickledown effect on the rest of the team. It’s imperative to gain (and maintain) respect from your employees, and one way to do this is by ensuring you show stable leadership.

Employees will follow your example; if you are constantly turning up late to the office, you will be left in an awkward position if you then admonish them for doing the same. You need to set a good example and be professional in your attitude to work, so that you are in a position to address them, if necessary, without being hypocritical.

  1. Put yourself into their shoes

There can be a disconnect between different levels of management within a company; naturally entry level employees may view those in the C-Suite differently to their colleagues at the same level as them. This is something all leaders need to be aware of, and this also extends to the different issues that affect employees at various levels within a single organisation.

Management needs to listen and make a conscious effort to understand the needs of each individual. You will need to be open-minded to understand their issues, but you also need to be bold enough to ask employees to adjust their own thinking if needed.

  1. Encourage openness

Problems can fester if nobody speaks up, so it’s your job to create a culture of openness in the workplace. This way most difficult conversations can be avoided, but when they do arise you can demonstrate your openness and deal with any issues upfront.

For example, if an employee is distracting others, this can be softly addressed without confrontation. Ask to have a private chat and explain how to strike a balance between being conversational and friendly with colleagues, and still being able to complete their work.

  1. Stay professional

By establishing yourself as a leader, you must try to avoid letting emotions take over whilst having a heated discussion with an employee – no matter how much you like (or dislike) the person. Be objective and unbiased and give or take feedback where necessary.

Similarly, if the person in questions begins to get emotional and unprofessional, try to remain considerate of their feelings and ensure you make it obvious that this isn’t a personal attack on them, but is a conversation based on facts and – crucially – respect. Always work to preserve a professional relationship.

  1. Know your objective

As above, before having a conversation with an employee about a sensitive or uncomfortable subject, do some prep to clarify your objective and ensure you know all the facts. It’s easy to go off topic during an uncomfortable discussion, so having a clear idea of what you want the final outcome to be and the ideal solution for you both will make the transaction much easier.

Prepare an outline of what you would like to get across detailing every issue that needs addressing. Try to structure the talk to alleviate the discomfort – try a ‘bad-news sandwich’ and deliver positive feedback, followed by the bad news, then wrap it up with a final positive point.

By Charlie Taylor, Founder & CEO of Debut, UK’s award-winning student and graduate careers app

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