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Gill Trevelyan

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Handling difficult conversations in the workplace


Managers must be able to handle difficult conversations at work, especially in the current climate. Gill Trevelyan advises on how best to communicate with employees.


Lost for words?

What is the hardest part of conducting a disciplinary, grievance or investigatory interview? Is it trying to remember and adhere to the legislation that governs these procedures? Perhaps it’s the conversations during the interviews that fill you, or your managers, with trepidation. Telling someone that they are underperforming and may face disciplinary action is not an enjoyable job for most people. And being on the receiving end of a hostile grievance submission can be a difficult and unpleasant experience.
In the workplace, learning to handle difficult conversations can result in getting the best out of people – which can only be good for business and productivity. Managers are key to the success of any business or organisation. Being able to handle difficult conversations is essential and leads to more effective communication in general with staff. This in turn builds on mutual respect and trust – they know where they stand and are clearer about what is expected from them.

The skills

The majority of Acas’ work results, either directly or indirectly, from miscommunication when problems first arise – a lot of time, energy and heartache could be saved if managers were better equipped to recognise and deal with the more ‘sensitive’ issues. So what skills do you need to be able to deal with those uncomfortable conversations? The list below highlights the key skills required to be able to talk to people confidently whatever the issue:
  • Well developed communication skills – active listening, careful use of language/questioning techniques
  • Non-judgmental, impartial approach
  • Patience/staying calm
  • Do not make assumptions/pre-judge the situation
  • Demonstrate respect for the individual
  • Assertiveness
  • Being able to probe/challenge in a non-confrontational way
  • Being clear about desired outcomes/parameters/consequences
  • Be able to focus on the behaviour/task rather than the person

Be prepared

Obviously one of the main aspects to becoming confident is to learn through experience, as managers may initially lack confidence even if they feel they have the knowledge. Lack of preparation is another area which may make the conversation more difficult than it should be as the manager may react rather than thinking and planning. Also managers need to be clear about what the exact problem is and what the desired outcomes are.
One of the key tools to being prepared is to sort and separate facts from feelings. Try to think of ways to ask questions in a way that does not use emotional language. For example, a statement such as ‘you are always making jokes about me and you don’t like me’ is full of emotion. This could be better phrased as ‘I don’t want to have any more jokes made about me as they make me feel humiliated’. Avoid using ‘you’ in statements and replace with ‘I’.
Ask for views from the other person, give them a chance to talk and listen. Ask for ideas which will make the work situation better. Also, show appreciation for any cooperation or willingness.

Effective communication

Effective listening is a vital part of oral communication and includes being attentive (rather than half listening because you are concentrating on what you are going to say next), giving feedback and maintaining natural eye contact. It also strengthens relationships by demonstrating to the speaker that they have something worthwhile to say.
Effective listening is not easy but with practice and a determined effort it brings benefits of a deeper understanding of other people, their problems and their points of view.
Questioning is another key communication skill. There are different types of questions such as open questions which encourage people to talk and normally start with who, what, where, why and when or closed questions where you are seeking specific facts. The ability to use an appropriate type of question and get a useful response is the hallmark of an effective questioner. At the start of any discussion it is usually best to ask open questions then you can use closed, probing and reflective questions later. Multiple and leading questions should be avoided.

Early intervention

Poor communication between managers and their staff often leads to issues becoming more serious than necessary. Being prepared to talk about problems when they first arise means they can often be dealt with long before formal disciplinary or grievance action is needed. Facing up to the need for having that difficult conversation early on may mean fewer of them in the long run.
Gill Trevelyan is head of Good Practice Services at Acas. Acas provides training courses in handling difficult conversations – visit for more information

One Response

  1. Difficult conversations
    A key skill for managers is being able to deal immediately and appropriately with small issues when they arise, rather than, as we are all prone to do, putting it off until it’s become a huge problem. So as well as the skills mentioned in the article, such as listening, assertiveness and task-focus, it’s essential that the manager does not procrastinate, takes action and ensures that feedback is given on a daily basis.

    With daily feedback, small problems can be quicky cleared up, and just as importantly, opportunities for praise will also come about much more frequently.

    For a quick checklist on giving feedback, go to and download ‘How to Give Great Feedback’ – there’s a ‘What not to do’ guide as well!


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