Do you want to stop having “Difficult Conversations”? Part 1


Has this ever happened to you?  You have to deliver BAD NEWS to someone who works for you. Perhaps 

a) the “Difficult” performance conversation;
b) the “Difficult” death-of-a-project conversation;
c) the “Really Difficult” redundancy conversation; or
d) there is some other form of bad news you need to share 

You get pretty anxious, you have nervous butterflies and maybe you even feel slightly sweaty (not that you’d admit that to just anyone).

Sound familiar?

You’re really not looking forward to it. You know you’ll feel awful.  You don’t want to fall out but you worry that you will.  You just know it’s going to be difficult and you don’t want to do it.  You know you must.  

So, you brace yourself and head off for “The Difficult Conversation”.  Perhaps you always use the same quiet room for difficult conversations.  Perhaps, almost unconsciously, it has become The “Difficult Conversation” Room.

You meet.

(At this point, I’d actually like to congratulate you for having the guts to have the meeting; many people just hope the situation will go away or that someone else will deal with it. So, well done.)

You meet. It’s difficult.  

Surprised? You shouldn’t be.  You’ve engineered it to go badly from the very beginning.  

How?  Well in quite a few ways actually, and many people will tell you that it is because you are focussing on all the things you don’t want.  I’d agree with that; focussing on what you do want is crucially important, but I’d like to take this a stage further.

In the example above, you’re not just focussing on the wrong thing, you’re focussing on the wrong person.


Harsh? Perhaps, and it got your attention, which is good.  Now, let’s think about this a bit further… 

What if you were to tear the sign from the door to The “Difficult Conversation” Room and replace it with another one.   This is now the door to The 

I am going to give this person the information s/he needs, to understand

a) their performance does not meet expectations; or 
b) the project they have put heart and soul into is being canned; or 
c) their job is at risk and the support that is available; or
d) whatever it is they need to understand right now

in a way that makes the message very clear, ensures they have the chance to ask questions and leaves them feeling that they have been treated with respect, and that they know what to do next 


It’s a BIG sign!  Would it change the way you approached the conversation? Would that change of approach lead to better results from the conversation?

In my experience, it would: a few weeks ago I had a bit of a hiccup.  I’d brought someone else in to help with a very specialised piece of work.  It went well; the client got the results they wanted. When I received the invoice, there were some items on there which had not been explicitly agreed. This was going to have an impact on the bottom line.  I needed to address it.  This person is also a friend and I didn’t want to fall out over the issue (recognise this?).  I thought this might be a difficult conversation.

I caught myself thinking that way, so I changed my approach.  I worked out what I wanted, what my fall back position was and HOW I WANTED HIM TO FEEL AT THE END OF THE CONVERSATION, which was that he had been treated with respect and treated fairly.  I planned the discussion that way.   I called him and explained the situation.  As soon as I explained the position, he offered to re-invoice. Easy as that.

You might be thinking, that wasn’t a particularly difficult conversation to have.  You’d be right.  It wasn’t…because I didn’t make it ALL ABOUT ME.  Of course, some of it was about me.  It had to be; I was thinking about what I needed to achieve.  After that, I made it all about him and he was the one who suggested a solution.

Often, the most difficult conversations we have at work are the ones where someone’s job is at stake.  I’ve cringed while sitting alongside a manager whose opening words before telling someone they were going to be made redundant were, “This is as painful for me as it is for you.”  I cringed for a couple of reasons, 1) it was all about him, and 2) I didn’t believe it.

Of course we feel bad about telling someone that sort of news.  In fact, the day you can do it with no feeling at all, you should probably move out of management – because you’ve become a robot. The point is that meeting wasn’t about the manager; it should have been about the person on the receiving end of the news.  

  • About what they needed to know.  
  • About what the implications were.  
  • About getting answers to their questions. 
  • About knowing where to go if questions occurred to them later on.  (Let’s face it, in that situation they’re not going to take a lot in at first)

There are lots of ways of handling “Difficult Conversations”, and part 2 of this blog will include some useful further tips.  However the next time you are going to have a conversation (“difficult” or otherwise), I want you to remember that:


Go forth and have successful conversations!


Part 2 coming soon



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