How to handle difficult conversations with colleagues

Tips for handling difficult conversations

  1. Don’t duck them

While there’s always a temptation to avoid tackling ‘the conversation’ you know you need to have, this should be avoided at all costs. Not only will an important issue remain unresolved which could be holding your team back, but it’ll continue to play on your mind whilst the other party remains completely in the dark.

It’s not reasonable to expect someone to change if they’re not even aware there’s an issue in the first place and in most cases, they’re often nowhere near as bad as you expect them to be.


  1. Professional not personal

Your fundamental aim in any such conversation should be to communicate that the conversation is entirely professional and not personal.

To help achieve this, keep the conversation focused on specific examples where their work or conduct has been a cause for concern.


  1. Clarity is key

The person you’re speaking to needs to be clear about your exact concern/s. This doesn’t mean being unkind or impolite – far from it – but if you can’t sum the issue up in one sentence, there’s a strong chance it won’t be received as you intended.


  1. Listen and engage

It’s critical that you invite the person you’re talking to, to give their perspective on the issue(s). And, if you’re going to ask for their view, you then need to listen very carefully to their response and avoid jumping to conclusions or interrupting.

Seeing things from their perspective may not necessarily change your view of the situation, but it should help you understand the underlying cause and therefore improve the chances of finding a solution.


  1. Avoid a win-lose mindset

In the very best conversations, once the issue has been raised there should be a sense of joint problem solving. While this is not possible every time, the aim from the start should be to find a way forward that both parties feel comfortable with. This may require a bit of give and take, but ultimately it increases the chances of a positive long-term outcome.


  1. Be prepared, but remain flexible

You cannot expect to walk in to ‘the conversation’ without any preparation at all and for it to go well. Thinking through what it is that you want to communicate, and how you will do this, can make all the difference.

At the same time, try to remain flexible and adapt to the conversation as it develops. An inflexible approach or sticking to rigidly to your ‘script’ gives the impression that you’re not listening or engaging with the person you’re speaking to.


  1. Location, location, location

Think in advance about where you are going to have this conversation. Confidentiality is important when dealing with tricky issues. Is there a quiet space or office where you can speak knowing you won’t be interrupted?


  1. Timing

Similarly, timing is important. Consider the best time of day to tackle the conversation. Some leaders avoid having these conversations before the start of the day. This is because it can feel unfair to ask a teacher to engage in such a conversation and then go straight into a day working with the children.

The end of the day has the added benefit of meaning people have more time to reflect and consider what was said.


  1. Let silence do the heavy lifting

Many of us may feel uncomfortable with silence, especially in one-to-one conversations. However, as much as you can, try to avoid the temptation to fill the silence. It may be that the person you are speaking to needs some time to process what is being said and to formulate a response.


  1. Discussing options and establishing a way forward

Bringing these sorts of meetings to a close can be difficult. The aim should be to explore various options and solutions together before agreeing on a way forward. It’s also vital to agree a time and date when you will get back together to review how things are going.

You won’t get these conversations right 100% of the time, but by being prepared to have them in the first place, you’re significantly increasing the chances of your team being highly successful.