Employer Resources

How to have difficult conversations in the workplace 

Difficult conversations are a fundamental part of the workplace dynamic. They allow employees and teams to address challenges and conflicts head-on. These conversations aren’t always easy, but they’re always important for growth. They also help companies improve trust, solve problems and maintain a productive work environment. 

Individuals with professional development education are often better equipped to handle difficult conversations. This education can provide skills in corporate learning design, which helps all employees succeed. These programs also help employees track workplace learning, an important step for business analysis. 

Employees with the right education learn how to navigate challenging discussions through active listening, empathy and respect. 

Types of difficult conversations 

Employees might participate in several types of difficult conversations in the workplace. Often, these conversations include details about work performance or employer expectations. Common difficult workplace discussions include conflict resolution, resignation or disciplinary actions. 

Conflict resolution 

Many difficult conversations take place to resolve problems. Conflict resolution is an important component of many difficult discussions, helping employees work through challenges. 

Here are a few examples of conflicts that might require a conversation for resolution: 

  • Employee disagreements: Disagreements between two or more employees often require conflict resolution. Sometimes, a difficult conversation is necessary to solve the problem. 
  • Workplace policies: Some employees might have problems with specific workplace policies. It’s important for companies to hold clear, honest conversations about why certain policies are in place. 
  • Interpersonal conflicts: Conflicts between employees can sometimes disrupt a workplace. It’s important for companies to address these issues, even if they are not work-related. 

Without honest, sometimes difficult discussions, conflicts can grow worse. Conflict resolution allows companies to proactively address issues. Effective conflict resolution can also help foster a productive work environment and reduce turnover. 

Performance evaluations 

Workplace performance evaluations often lead to difficult conversations. Many performance evaluations involve employers giving criticism to employees. Some employers might perceive this feedback as negative, creating a difficult conversation. 

Companies should adopt a sensitive approach when evaluating an employee’s performance. During conversations with employees, employers should begin by highlighting an employee’s strengths. Emphasize how an employee has improved before offering constructive feedback. 

Performance evaluations often include sensitive topics. Employers might discuss an employee’s work ethic, dedication or productivity during the conversation. This can lead to employee discomfort or general tension. Approaching a performance evaluation with empathy and compassion can help limit any difficulty. 

Termination or resignation discussions 

Discussing termination or resignation can be a difficult conversation for everyone involved. The conversation can involve the end of an employee’s relationship with a company. For employees, termination means a loss of job security, revenue and even personal identity. As a result, employees often experience anger or irritation when discussing termination. 

Employers can also experience discomfort during a termination discussion. Many companies terminating an employee may lose productivity until a new employee is hired. These conversations can also involve sensitive details like work performance, job fit or financial concerns. 

Resignation can create similarly difficult conversations. Some employees resign because they’re not satisfied with their work environment. In other cases, an employee might be asked to resign because of their job performance. 

Conversations about termination or resignation can be difficult for everyone involved. It’s important to treat these conversations with respect and understanding. Employers can also conclude this difficult conversation by offering resources or tools to employees facing a change. 

Disciplinary action conversations 

Employee productivity, attitude and other factors can lead to disciplinary action. These conversations create a difficult environment, one where employers reprimand employees. These conversations are also made uncomfortable as employers discuss the consequences of continued misbehavior. 

Here are a few examples of employee actions that would require discipline: 

  • Misconduct like theft, harassment or other illegal behaviors 
  • Violation of company policies 
  • Poor work performance 
  • Unprofessional behavior like inappropriate language or aggression 

Though difficult, conversations about disciplinary action are important in the workplace. They create opportunities to reestablish guidelines for appropriate employee behavior. These conversations also help to set clear expectations for employee improvement. 

Preparing for difficult conversations 

Preparation is important for all difficult conversations. Take the time to collect your thoughts and organize any notes. Identify specific statements you can make that will drive the conversation forward. 

Creating an outline and gathering information ahead of time can also help you prepare for a difficult conversation and limit potential friction. 

Gather information ahead of time 

Collecting information is a critical step in preparing for difficult conversations. This step helps to ensure that the conversation is well-informed and focused on specific topics. 

Before the conversation, take time to review employee files and performance reviews. Gather information on job performance, attendance and any previous disciplinary actions or warnings. 

Document any incidents or behaviors that require the call. These materials might include emails, written reports or witness statements. Take time to review company procedures to ensure that any discipline is consistent with company practices. 

Create an outline of what you want to discuss 

An outline helps to ensure that you cover all important topics of conversation. Creating an outline of topics provides structure for future discussion. A comprehensive outline creates clarity and helps improve outcomes for all conversation participants. 

Discussion outlines help to keep the conversation organized, making it easier to follow and remember what has been discussed. A thorough outline can also help you manage emotions once the conversation begins. 

Plan how you will handle different reactions 

Employers receive a variety of reactions from employees during difficult discussions. While some employees might be grateful for the opportunity to implement feedback, others might feel upset or angry. Handling employee reactions is an important skill for employers in difficult conversations. 

Active listening is one way that employers can prepare for conversations. This means listening to employee perspectives and paying attention to body language. Ask clarifying questions and take employee opinions to heart. 

Various soft skills can also help employers prepare for discussions. Skills in empathy, teamwork, communication and problem-solving are particularly important when speaking with workers who might be upset. These skills help employers respond appropriately, no matter the situation. 

It’s important for employers to remain respectful during discussions, no matter how employees react. Company leaders should remain composed and calm. This attitude can help diffuse potential conflicts or emotions that might arise during conversation. 

Conducting difficult conversations 

Though often unpleasant, difficult discussions are important in the modern workplace. They can help employees grow and allow companies to remain focused on success. No matter the topic of discussion, brave workplace conversations should remain respectful and professional. 

Set aside time for the conversation 

It’s important to reserve time for difficult conversations. Setting aside time for difficult discussions helps to emphasize their importance and ensures all participants will be present. 

Scheduling enough time for a conversation also allows participants to fully express their thoughts. Employers shouldn’t rush employees through a conversation, particularly an important one. Setting aside time for conversation helps everyone involved express feedback in constructive ways. It also prevents employers or employees from feeling overwhelmed or rushed by time constraints. 

Maintain open communication 

Open communication helps all conversation participants feel heard and respected. Maintaining open communication is particularly important for employees. Employees who want to discuss problems with workplace policies or other employees should have the freedom to speak openly. 

Body language is another important component of open conversation. Employers who correctly read body language can interpret an employee’s thoughts, even if thoughts aren’t voiced. This includes picking up on cues in head position, posture, eye movements and hand gestures. 

Give and receive feedback respectfully 

Having difficult conversations also means giving and receiving feedback. It’s important to give and receive feedback appropriately, in ways that keep conversations professional and respectful. 

Giving feedback starts when employers concentrate on the behavior, not the person. Companies should refrain, when possible, from criticizing an employee’s personality or other characteristics. Instead, keep feedback specific to an employee’s work performance. Provide clear expectations for improvement. Help employees identify goals that might reflect this improvement. 

Practice active listening when receiving feedback. Understand employee responses and identify any opportunities for company improvement. Be aware of your response as feedback is delivered, including your body language. Use “I” statements like, “I recognize this moment as an opportunity for improvement.” These statements help employers accept responsibility when appropriate while avoiding accusatory language. 

Be prepared to listen 

Difficult conversations can quickly become dominated by emotions. Employers should honestly listen to employees’ thoughts and feelings before responding. Provide employees with the opportunity to express their points of view. Don’t interrupt their statements until they’ve expressed their own perspectives. 

Listening to employee feedback can greatly improve a difficult conversation. It helps everyone involved work toward a resolution, no matter what that might be.