How to have a difficult conversation at work

I hate having a difficult conversation because it makes me feel horrible and it is rarely welcomed by the other party. Over the years people have sat down with me to tell me some home truths that I didn’t want to hear, and I didn’t much like it. But feedback is very important. Few of us are born self aware so getting feedback from others can be terribly helpful. But it needs to be done well if we are to take on what is being said, and if as a result of compassionately offered feedback, we are to make positive changes.

So let’s start with what can go wrong.

You set up a meeting and the other person turns up. As you start to explain the situation he or she

  • Gets angry and aggressive and denies everything you say
  • Starts criticising you
  • Looks for inconsistencies in your statement or approach, and points them out
  • Claims you are being unfair and failing to recognise their positive attributes or efforts
  • Tells you that you should have given the feedback before/in other forums/in writing
  • Agrees with your key point but only to get you off their back. You often only realise this when you discover later that they are just not willing or able to make any changes
  • Bursts into tears

And, if you are really unlucky, you can get all of this in a half hour meeting!!

So what is happening at the emotional level?

None of us enjoys criticism, which is perceived as an attack, so it is not surprising that the person you are talking to reverts to our most basic human/animal instinct which is “fight or flight”.


If the person you are talking to you seems to be getting angry, even if they are supressing it in a socially acceptable way (going red, raising their voice, leaning in, swearing, glaring at you), you are seeing a fight response. Sometimes this is very basic and their arguments may be somewhat ludicrous, but in a high performing person their arguments may be quite sophisticated. You may start to join in with the debate as they are conducting it – for example saying that you were not being inconsistent, and this is different etc.

But it is very important not to fight back as it could actually come to blows. Or at the least the temperature will be raised and you will not get the outcome you want.

When the other person is very emotionally charged we have to respond in a calm and measured way. We need to listen carefully and with understanding. Using your emotional side listen to the distress and anxiety which lies behind their words. They are worried that you find them incompetent.

It is easy to get hooked in, especially if their fight response involves a counter attack, as it generally does. However if you also adopt the fight response and respond in an emotionally charged way the situation will get even worse. You do not want to have an argument. If he says you are in the wrong, or points out an inconsistency, give a firm, succinct and measured response, e.g. “No. I knew what the time commitment was – but I did expect to be using my time differently”.

This is not easy to do.

We all have aggressive tendencies which can come to the surface very readily. For me it is when I am on hold with horrible musak -  call centre intransigence can drive me nuts and I find myself saying rude things to disempowered junior employees, which is “out of character” for me. I am ashamed at how angry and aggressive I feel in these circumstances. Equally when my husband shouts obscenities at other drivers I find it pathetic, but I know it comes from the same place – a sense of frustration and irritation that soon spills over into fighting.  Recognising these feelings of anger and a readiness to fight can motivate us to make positive changes, or win competitions. But when our competence is questioned or we are faced with critique all of us have the ability to lose control and show our teeth.


Denying there is a problem, crying or not making any changes are the other side of the coin. These are flight tactics, and in the animal kingdom this would be the animal that runs away or takes flight to avoid danger. While I do fight sometimes I admit I prefer to fly – instinctively I would rather run and hide, or resign from a job I disliked than confront my tormentor. 

In many ways I find the flight response is harder to deal with. Flight people may fill a meeting with irrelevant chit chat rather than deal with the difficult issue at hand. They find endless reasons to avoid doing the work required. When confronted they urgently want to get the hell out of there, and mutter “beam me up Scotty” rather than discuss something that will be difficult.

If you are having a difficult conversation with someone who will not really engage with you it is important not to let them off the hook – which would of course be a relief for you as well as them. Certainly I can tell you that the problem will very rarely right itself or go away. In fact if you need to have the conversation I suggest that you persist. Again explain patiently that we need to do something about this problem and keep going until you have some agreed outcomes that must be delivered. You then need to follow through. By the way, if anyone becomes really distressed it would be a good idea to allow them to compose themselves and to reschedule the meeting, or to ask them if they want to be accompanied.

Getting through

Clearly if people are angry or scared they are probably not going to listen well. The key thing is to stay very calm and measured while they express their range of emotions. You have to make the conversation feel safe for them and acknowledge their feelings without colluding with them. It is your job to get your message across.

Here are a few hints I have found useful – but I really would like to hear any advice you may have from your experience.

  • Think through what you want to achieve and what you want to say in advance. It may be helpful to produce a note to help focus your thoughts and to help you write up a file or supervision note later.
  • Don’t label the person, but focus on the behaviour that is causing trouble
  • Explain how their behaviour impacts on you
  • Explain how it impacts on the organisation
  • Explain the benefits of them approaching the issue differently on something they believe in – e.g. improving customer service, making the organisation more successful etc.
  • Tell them what you value about them and how they have made positive changes in the past.
  • Share your reaction to their behaviour e.g.” You seem to be very angry about this” – they can then own their emotions (or deny them)
  • If and when they admit there is an issue you could ask them how they would approach resolving it
  • Try to find common ground – e.g. we both think that pupil attendance is very important so how can we focus on driving it up?

 What experience of difficult conversations at work do you have? What advice would you give?

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Kate Davies
Kate Davies

After obtaining a Master’s degree in Sociology, Kate Davies got her first job in Housing by chance. She embraced the opportunity it gave her to make a difference to people’s lives. In this stimulating milieu and while acquiring further qualifications, Kate’s career quickly progressed. She has now held management positions for over 30 years in both Housing Associations and Local Authorities. During that time, the nature of her role as leader has changed. The authoritative, handing-down management model of yesterday stopped working as the workforce became diverse, younger and more receptive to a consultative approach.