Turning Difficult Conversations Into Valuable Interactions

October 15, 2016


One of the most difficult tasks for new leaders is navigating the minefield of difficult conversations. Just the thought of being involved in one can cause anxiety, which often leads to avoidance of the conversations. Avoiding difficult conversations is not uncommon, and it comes at a cost. If the conversation is related to performance, then avoiding it will delay any improvement, and the continued poor performance will cost your organization money in lost productivity. Avoidance can also cause increased leader stress and impact employee engagement of your high performers, due to performance concerns of others, remaining unaddressed. This doesn’t have to be the case however. The keys to mastering difficult conversations are preparation and practice.


To prepare for difficult conversations, leaders should focus on these key points:


  1. Environment: Where will you have the conversation? Pick a neutral, comfortable setting that will protect confidentiality.

  2. Purpose: Ensure you are clear on what the issue is and the objective of the conversation. This will ensure the meeting stays on track.

  3. Inquiry: Prepare to adopt a mindset of inquiry. What questions will you ask? You need to ensure you have the facts before making accusations.

  4. Manage Emotions: You will need to prepare for the possible emotions you might face. What will you do if the individual gets angry? What if they cry, or withdraw? Anticipate the reaction and prepare for all possible outcomes. You also need to manage your own emotions. Make sure that you do not mirror any negative behaviour, remain calm and professional.

  5. Relationship: Preserve the relationship! Your goal for the conversation is to help the individual get better. End the meeting with this point being clear.


The final piece is practice. By participating in these conversations, you can become experienced and grow comfortable with them. Then, you can assist new leaders to also grow in this area.


David has been an organizational leader for over 30 years in various industries, leading teams as large as 300 people.  He is currently completing a Master’s degree in Leadership.

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