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How to master difficult conversations

By Jack Campbell | |5 minute read

The HR department is dependent on difficult conversations. It’s a job that nobody wants to do but is essential to running a business. Here are some tips for getting it right.


A difficult conversation, as defined by the Fair Work Ombudsman (FWO), “is one in which you have to manage emotions and information in a sensitive way to deal with a workplace issue”.

According to FWO, a difficult conversation may involve:

  • Topics you don’t want to talk about.
  • Situations where you’re not sure what to say.
  • Conflicting opinions.
  • Circumstances where the outcome is uncertain.
  • Discussions that make you feel uncomfortable.

As a leader or an HR professional, difficult conversations are unavoidable. They’re part of the job description. That’s why confidence in your ability to conduct one is so important. However, care must also be taken not to hurt the person on the other end.

Some situations where you may need to have a difficult conversation, as listed by FWO, are:

  • Poor employee performance or behaviour.
  • Complaints and grievances.
  • Giving bad news, such as ending employment or advising unsuccessful job applicants.
  • Addressing conflict.
  • Communicating tough business decisions.

A great tip for conducting a difficult conversation is identifying the what, the feelings, and the identity.

These three themes can help to make sure the message is conveyed effectively. As discussed by the Center for Creative Leadership:

  1. Sort out what. How do you see the situation? Where does your story come from (information, past experiences, rules)? What do you think you know about the other person’s viewpoint? What impact has this situation had on you? What might their intentions have been? What have you each contributed to the problem?
  2. Understand your feelings. Explore your feelings and ask yourself, What bundle of emotions am I experiencing?
  3. Ground your identity. How does this situation threaten you or have the potential to shake up your sense of identity? How do you see yourself (I’m the boss; I like competition; I’m loyal; I’m good at developing my people)? What do you need to accept in order to be better grounded?

Preparation is also an integral part of engaging in a difficult conversation. Going in blind can make way for a negative experience, fuelled by emotions and a missed opportunity to convey the message. Empathy must be present.

Ohio State University outlined the best practices for preparing for a difficult conversation, giving seven key tips:

  1. Before you jump into a difficult conversation, spend some private time identifying the difficulty and acknowledging different points of view and the other person’s intention.
  2. Be certain this is a conversation that is worth having.
  3. Invite the other person to talk with you. Emphasise your interest in working well together and hearing their point of view.
  4. Start the conversation by “seeking first to understand”. Ask the other person an open-ended question that will get him/her to describe how she sees the situation. Do your very best listening. Listen with empathy. Acknowledge the other person’s feelings and point of view. Paraphrase to see if you got it right.
  5. Share your own point of view, your intentions, and your feelings. Use “I” statements. Describe how you believe you got to where you are, including how you contributed to the problem. Take responsibility for your part.
  6. Talk about the future and what can happen differently so you don’t end up in the same place. Offer what you plan to do differently. Ask the person what suggestions they have to resolve the situation. Suggest what you think the other person could do.
  7. Thank the other person for talking with you. Offer why it was important to resolve this conflict.
Jack Campbell

Jack Campbell

Jack is the editor at HR Leader.