Difficult Conversations

by Barbara Buffton

What makes a conversation difficult

  • I have to tell someone she’s going to be made redundant.
  • I want a pay rise but don’t know how to approach my boss.
  • Someone has complained they’re being bullied by x. I have to talk to x.
  • We have a hygiene problem in the office. Members of the team have requested I talk to the person concerned.
  • I hate the way a colleague uses swear words in my presence.
  • I know a member of staff has been stealing.
  • A colleague’s wife has died. I don’t know what to say to him.
  • There were so many things he did wrong in the presentation, where to begin?
  • I have to tell one of our suppliers we can no longer use them.
  • She’s just not up to the job, but I can’t fire her.
  • I need to broach the subject of my fee.

These statements represent difficult situations that are going to require someone saying something to someone else in an attempt to get a positive outcome for all concerned. The situation is difficult, but does this mean that the conversation has to be difficult as well?

The answer is ‘yes’, according to the many books, articles and websites on the topic of ‘difficult conversations’. However, what makes the conversation difficult is only fear and embarrassment. We are fearful that we will

  • Say the wrong thing
  • Head into confrontation or conflict
  • End up with an unpleasant atmosphere
  • Offend the person concerned and make things worse
  • Be blamed
  • Lose something we value
  • Even lose a friend.

Some people are more fearful than others and so may well find these conversations even more difficult. Embarrassment derives from

  • A lack of confidence in our ability to deal with what we perceive to be difficult issues
  • The thought of having to discuss something personal
  • A possible loss of face, either on our own part or on the part of the other party
  • Not knowing what to do or say. This can happen, for example, if someone has suffered a bereavement and returned to work and you feel the need to show you care, but you don’t know what words would be appropriate.
Key tip  

Care enough to hold the ‘difficult’ conversation.