HomeEmployee ExperienceEngagementNavigating difficult conversations at work

Navigating difficult conversations at work

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Emma Serlin, founder and CEO of the London Speech Workshop, shares her tips on how to communicate confidently and authentically during difficult conversations in the workplace.

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No one enjoys a difficult conversation. According to CMI research, 57% said they would do almost anything to avoid having one. However, there are ways to make these conversations easier and more productive.

First, there are three key concepts to bear in mind when it comes to having a difficult conversation: understanding, curiosity and honesty.


Understand your own perspective, why you feel frustrated, what the issue is for you, and then do the same for the other person.

This will give you a perspective that’s much broader than the more typical “you did X and I’m annoyed” dynamic that so often dominates these conversations. Now you’re in a space of “this happened, I understand why it is an issue for me.”


If you’re curious, you can find out what was going on for the other person, and where the disconnect between your expectations or values and theirs stems from.

Before you start the conversation, make sure you understand the context and issues that may be affecting how someone is feeling and behaving. If you’re not sure, keep an open mind at the start of the conversation and be prepared to truly listen.


Stand by and share your feelings, and speak from your own perspective. Sharing your emotional and practical point of view allows the other person to build empathy for you. With this, you’ve created the foundation for a constructive, honest and empathetic conversation, meaning a positive resolution is much more likely.

Going to the COAST

Now you have these three concepts front of mind, we can introduce some rather useful tools.

A difficult conversation can create a gut response. Our physiology is hard-wired to react to any threat, whether that’s to our physical safety or our security in our job role. We could compare it to being trapped in a dark, enclosed space: you want to get out of it but are struggling. You can help someone move away from this place by reversing the metaphor. Think of it as ‘going to the coast’ – an open landscape, which offers fresh air and new perspectives.

You can use the COAST tool to plan for a difficult conversation:

  • Connect – consider what you like and value about the person. Use this to connect with them, as it will make them more receptive throughout your discussion. This will also help you to remember that, even if someone is behaving in a way you don’t like, it’s the behaviour, not the person, you need to address.

  • Observation – be as objective as possible. For example, say, “I noticed that you’re often late to work,” instead of, “You’re always late.” This enables the recipient to feel seen and valued. Even in giving the negative message, you’re connecting to the person, which will open up the conversation and prevent a defensive reaction.

  • Ask – this stage is the most powerful. Ask the recipient for their perspective to help them feel heard. From, “I observe you’re often late to work,” ask, “Is everything okay?”. This moves the discussion from objective and accusatory to subjective and empathetic. Again, fostering this connection will make a person feel more supported to change.

  • Share – share the impact of the recipient’s actions on you to help them understand why something needs to change. The connection you’re fostering then goes beyond you and them, and brings in others in the working space.

  • Taking forward – the final stage will disclose what the next steps are, and how you’ll move forward. By planning for the outcome you need to achieve at the start of the conversation, you can move more easily to a place of mutual agreement, reaching a compromise that works for both of you.

Stay grounded

Negative feelings from the past shouldn’t influence how you go into a difficult conversation. The idea of someone being frustrated at us can cause us to panic or derail the purpose of the discussion. Here, I would advise employees to try the CEDAR tool:

  • Check in – check in with yourself. Difficult conversations can often activate our ‘fight or flight’ mode, so if you’re feeling anxious or stressed, take a deep six-second breath. This not only helps calm you down, but also allows you to think more rationally. Notice how you’re feeling and identify why.

  • Empathy – have empathy for yourself and the other person. If they’re expressing frustration, it means their values and needs aren’t being met. With empathy, you can begin to understand each other a little better, so consider why they’re frustrated. Ask them how you can meet their needs and help them feel heard.

  • Discover – after taking the time to breathe and consider the other’s perspective, you can begin the discovery process. Ask, “tell me more,” and listen to their concerns. Conceding that they have a valid point of view is crucial, you can say: “Thank you for helping me to see that perspective.”

  • Address – once you’ve digested their concerns and perspective, address them with your perspective entwined. You’ll be able to express yourself from a less defensive position – from a more grounded place (like a cedar tree).
  • Resolution – the final step will see you and your employee come to a resolution, in a calmer, happier manner and genuinely feel like you’re working together towards a solution.

Of course, difficult conversations can happen in the moment, and we don’t always have time to prepare.

Practising the CEDAR and COAST tools will help you handle these situations better in the long run, but it’s vital to always engage empathy as quickly as possible. Ask questions to understand where they’re coming from, and afterwards, be specific about the action that they need to take.

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