Top Tips for Difficult Conversations

Top Tips for Difficult Conversations

Top Tips for Necessary Conversations

Are you disappointed in a team member's performance? Are you uncertain or even anxious about how to raise this with them? This blog article provides top tips on how to approach and undertake these difficult yet necessary conversations.

We prefer to reframe difficult conversations as necessary conversations. Not because we’re ducking the issue. It’s because if we approach a conversation as being difficult, guess what it will become – yes, difficult.

We recommend that we adopt the mindset of having a conversation that is necessary. This highlights the importance of the conversation yet avoids that negative self-talk that can take over as we prepare our meeting.

Here are our top tips for having a necessary conversation:

Preparing for your necessary conversation

This importance of preparation cannot be overstated. Ask yourself why is this conversation so necessary? What has created the need for the conversation?

Make a list of the points that you want to make. Then place them in a priority order. Your list will help you keep on track during your meeting. If your meeting overruns and cannot be completed in one go, then your list will help you tackle the most pressing issues that are necessary to be discussed.

Rehearse your necessary conversation

Practice is really important. Your meeting is high stakes so you will need to get it right on the day. Rehearsing will help you get your words right and will help avoid that, ‘If only I had said that differently…’ feeling.

We suggest that you practice with a trusted colleague or friend who is not involved in the situation you’ll be discussing and will give you honest, objective feedback on how you are coming across.

Don’t just rely on one practice run either. Have at least three attempts. This will increase your chances of being on your ‘A’ game when your meeting takes place.

Be as specific as possible

Our previous blog article on feedback highlights the need to be as specific as possible. Avoid talking in generalisations. Instead, use specific examples so that the person you are meeting with is clear. Using specific examples will also help you be confident about what you are raising.

It’s important to avoid hearsay. Rely on facts and specific, observable behaviour(s). Remember to focus on the behaviours and not the person. This will help to avoid you and the other person getting involved in a personal slanging match.

In summary, being specific provides a reference point. Specific incidents will focus minds and the conversation.

There’s a time and a place for a necessary conversation

Pick a good time to hold your meeting. This means a good time for you and a good time for the other person. Resist any temptation to deliver your necessary conversation in the heat of the moment as reacting in an emotional way may not deliver the outcome you need (even though it might make you feel better at the time).

The same goes for the other person too. Will they be in the right (or better) frame of mind if the meeting is arranged for a more convenient time? It’s worth considering a time and place which will enable the person to be more accepting or at least willing to listen to the feedback they are going to receive.

Wherever possible, we recommend that the necessary conversation is held in-person, in private and away from any distractions. If circumstances prevent this then, of course, we have video conferencing. We recommend that you do not use telephone or email to conduct a necessary conversation.

If your necessary conversation is able to be delivered in-person then you have some very creative options to consider. Rather that your desk or your office, why not go somewhere different? For example, a private meeting room or an external, neutral venue such as a local coffee shop. Or perhaps even a walk or a park bench. Changing the location can change the dynamic.

Whichever location you decide to use, timing is important. Your necessary conversation needs to take place as soon as is reasonably possible. Letting things drift is not an option.

Listening and being quiet

It is very important that you give the opportunity to the other person to give their views. This may present a challenge, particularly if you feel strongly about the issue that has been made.

Our tip is to listen to understand rather than listening to respond. This requires a certain amount of discipline from ourselves who, rightly or wrongly, have our minds made up about the issue in question.

However, the fact is that if the other person does not have the opportunity to put their side of the story then they will feel that they are being treated unfairly. This is likely to make matters worse.

Being quiet i.e., remaining silent, also gives time for the other person to reflect on the feedback they have received and the impact that this has had. This is really important, so important that you may wish to call ‘time out’ and reconvene later.

Display empathy

Look to understand the situation from the other person’s perspective. This isn’t about offering sympathy, it’s about displaying empathy.

Empathy is about putting yourself in the other persons shoes, seeing things from their perspective. It’s not about agreeing with them – just understanding them.

It’s also worth displaying empathy in terms of how you conduct the necessary conversation meeting. For example, how would you feel if you were spoken to in this way? What would you think about the timing and the location of the meeting? What would it take for you to make your feedback message easier to swallow.


Having necessary conversations is not easy – for the other person or for you. However, by definition they are conversations that are necessary and therefore they need to be had.

We hope you find our top tips for necessary conversations helpful.

Paul Beesley
Director & senior consultant, Beyond Theory

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