How to manage difficult conversations

Confronting problem behaviour is part of a manager’s role. Leadership expert Dr Polly Parker explains how to use ‘challenging conversations’ to resolve conflict and bring about change.

There is a type of meeting that every manager dreads – confronting an employee about their poor performance, investigating a complaint about their behaviour or challenging someone who is creating conflict in the team.

Having difficult conversations like these is part and parcel of a manager’s role though we tend to put them off because we are afraid of how the other person will react. Yet where matters are not resolved, the problems continue and tension starts to mount.

We know intuitively when a difficult conversation is needed. Instead of delaying, it’s often better to start to address the issue at an early stage. Confronting problems helps to stop the build-up of stress and create a more positive working environment.

In her book, ‘Fierce Conversations’, management coach Susan Scott advocates pro-active communication as a way to tackle tough challenges. A fierce conversation is not warlike or aggressive but one that is robust, strong and powerful. It is a vibrant dialogue which allows us to examine the reality of a situation and improve clarity and understanding.

Fierce conversations concern things that matter to us, where something is at stake. Used in the right way, they can help us to resolve problems and bring about change.

Difficult conversations consist of three key steps – stating your own position, ascertaining the other person’s views and finding a resolution.

     1. State your position
One of the most important things to bear in mind before entering a dialogue is that your viewpoint is only one version of the truth. A successful conversation is where both people share their version of the truth. You need to be open to hearing the other person’s views. We often incorrectly assume that our perception is the whole picture – but by engaging with the other person, we can build the whole picture between us.

One of the skills in holding difficult conversations is to strike the right balance between being direct and saying what needs to be said, but at the same time not overwhelming the other person or deterring them from putting their point of view.

Start the conversation by outlining your position in a short opening statement that you have prepared and practiced in advance. You should state the issue and include a specific example to illustrate the situation, explain the problems it is causing and the likely outcome if it is not resolved. You should also say how it is making you feel, how you may have contributed to it, and your wish to resolve the situation.

     2. Ascertain their point of view
Once you have made your point, ask about the other person’s version of the truth. Listen carefully and ask questions. Don’t be tempted to argue your own case more strongly but try to gain insight and learn. Summarise what they have said and repeat it back to them to ensure that you have understood correctly. ‘Interrogating reality’ in this way helps to provoke learning.

The other person may not agree with your view and you might have to talk about your version of truth and theirs. In fact in any organisation there may be different versions of the truth and we need to be open to understanding them.

Often there is the official version of the truth, or what is written in the policies and procedures, and the ground truth. For example, there may be an equal opportunities policy in place but in informal decision making some people are treated differently to others. Unless you explore and understand these different realities, you may find it difficult to accomplish team goals without understanding why.

     3. Find a resolution
Getting the real issues on the table can take time and be frustrating. It requires each person to present their view of reality, speaking directly and clearly, and engage with each other. However it is an important part of the process.

Once you have established the issues, reflect on what you have learned from the conversation and how you can move forwards. Finally, agree a course of action with the other person and how you will monitor the agreement.

One of the keys to holding difficult conversations is to be authentic – or, as Susan Scott calls it, to ‘show up’. You need to be genuine and reveal your true self to make the conversation real, though this may be uncomfortable if you have spent years hiding behind a false persona.

It is also important to concentrate on what is happening and listen intently to the other person rather than allowing yourself to be distracted. Conversations like these can unleash powerful emotions so use moments of silence to slow things down or allow space for thought or reflection.

Fierce conversations can be daunting – it takes courage to confront others’ behaviour and they may tell us uncomfortable truths. But once you have overcome the initial barriers you may be surprised to find that the relationship is strengthened as a result. Interrogating reality will also provide you with greater insight and a better basis for decision making.

Understanding the value of fierce conversations and developing the skills to manage them can enhance your ability to lead change and enrich your relationships with others.


Dr Polly Parker is Associate Professor in HRM / Leadership at UQ Business School.

Last updated:
27 February 2019