• Contact Us

How to Handle Difficult Conversations at Work

on Thursday, 22 March 2018.

Anyone in a role managing staff within their school will face difficult conversations from time to time. Whether it's talking to someone in your department about their work not quite being up to standard, managing team dynamics or dealing with...

... a difficult personal matter, conversations which may make you feel uncomfortable can't be entirely avoided. In fact, they are a key part of strong line management.

So, how can you deal with them in a more effective way?

How to Begin

The first step is to ensure that you are the right person to have the conversation with the member of staff. Should it be dealt with by a line manager or should it be referred to HR or to a more senior manager?

Assuming you are the right person, don't avoid having that difficult conversation or put it off, tempting as that might be. These are often very important discussions to have and delaying them, or, indeed, avoiding them altogether, can cause real problems. Not addressing an issue at the time it arises can give the employee the impression that it's not that important. It can also lead to low staff morale if the issue relates to a team problem.

In an appraisal context, appraisers are often keen to focus on the positives and avoid having any conversation about areas which could be improved. This can mean that poor performance can go unaddressed for years, with appraisal records showing only glowing reports. At the point at which the performance needs to be tackled, this can cause real problems for employers.

Preparation Is Key

Difficult conversations are difficult because they take us out of our comfort zone. They may not go as we plan or people may become upset or confrontational. Preparation is key:

  • Check the facts relating to the issue you want to discuss, as well as any relevant policies or procedures.

  • Make sure you have the necessary support from HR or your line manager if you need it.

  • Take control of the discussion, set out the issues and give examples and evidence to support what you are saying.

  • Make sure the member of staff has the opportunity to respond and try to give effective feedback.

  • Try to keep calm, even if the staff member becomes emotional.

  • Be professional. While it can be appealing to approach these discussions as a friendly colleague, and of course you do need to be understanding in your approach, it is best to approach in a professional manner.

It is important to recognise that emotions are likely to be involved, both the employee's and yours. It may be difficult to predict how the staff member will react. They may be angry, or they may become upset. Similarly, recognise that your emotions may be involved in this, but stay as calm as possible.

How to Conclude

It is critical to try to end the discussion with a plan for the way forward. This will set boundaries around the issue in hand. Discuss the options with the member of staff, make a decision and agree on follow ups or reviews.


Narrow Quay HR can help your managers to deal with difficult conversations by offering training sessions on this and other essential HR topics for line managers.

For further information, please contact Sarah Want on 0117 314 5363 or Caitlin Anniss on 0117 314 5264 at Narrow Quay HR.

Leave a comment

You are commenting as guest.