How to navigate difficult conversations with your staff

Georgia Lane

No-one likes to have difficult conversations, whether that’s ending a relationship, handing in a job resignation, or admitting fault. Let’s face it, it’s uncomfortable. Palms sweat, hearts race… Our bodies often respond physically and the whole thing can just feel like an ordeal and become overwhelming. Although it’s only human to want to avoid social conflict at all costs, sometimes these conversations are either inevitable or necessary.

They don’t (or shouldn't) happen very often and they tend to be over as quickly as they arrive with little ramifications. But if you are a manager,  difficult conversations need to be navigated very carefully and can be an occupational hazard. If there is an issue brewing just beneath the surface, then it is often better to address the situation before it bubbles over and becomes a mess that is harder to clean up! 

Whether it’s about performance or two team members clashing, there comes a time when the impending hum of an awkward conversation comes to a head, and communication must ensue. If that noise is not silenced quickly and professionally it could risk negatively impacting the morale of the working environment completely. 

Sure, it might seem easier to just ignore these issues, especially when they're only in the early stages and don’t seem to be causing too much upset, or affecting your business in any way. A lot of us will choose to bury our heads in the sand rather than facing a tense conversation with someone we work closely with on a daily basis. Who needs that agro? But you’ve heard the saying, the longer you leave something the worse it gets. Not only for the working environment but for managers as well. 

Yes it’s scary but don't fear them. Facing these conversations with integrity, an open mind, and clear respectful communication will benefit all parties involved and will snuff out any potential lingering negative repercussions down the line. 

Here are some tips to get you through:

1. Your team will most likely appreciate your concern and honesty

Let’s say you have a member in your team who is underperforming. If you frame your conversation in a way that makes them feel looked after, supported and inspired, the conversation will be less likely to escalate. Both parties will leave the conversation feeling heard and understood and the air will be clear of any unsavory thoughts. Everybody wins.

2. Think about what you’re going to say before you open the conversation

Would you sail in uncharted waters without a compass? You might still lose your way, but equip yourself with the tools and it’s less likely that you will lose your direction when things get tough. Consider how the conversation might pan out and have informed/respectful ideas of how you will respond. Unexpected things might pop up, but that’s often where the problem lies. Difficult conversations often expose the crux of the problem quickly and may throw some curveballs, but it’s a great opportunity to make sure all parties are on the same page and allow us to move forward productively. 

3. Keep a positive tone of voice

Some find this harder than others depending on your management style. But even if you are quite direct, you can still deliver difficult information with a softer tone to your voice. Sticking to a positive tone of voice will most likely prevent defensive and argumentative communication and will also encourage productive and honest responses. Which at the end of the day, is better for you. You also want to go into that conversation with the resources and support to help them if they need it, again, keeping to that idea of positive reinforcement.

4. Try and leave your emotions out of it

 Yes, we are all emotional human beings and we are all different. And that’s great. But when approaching sensitive conversations that might rock the boat, in a work setting we must remain pragmatic and professional. It is all too easy in these uncomfortable scenarios to let our emotions lead us. It takes practice, but just remember the agenda behind your conversation and leave any personal attachments/feelings out of the interaction. 

5. There’s a time and a place

Think about how you might feel if your manager approached you unexpectedly, at your desk, or in front of the rest of your colleagues and had a hard hitting or uncomfortable conversation with you. It might even expose personal issues about attitude or home life, or morale… That’s not fair. Might feel a bit like an ambush. As a manager, it’s better to read the citation and prepare accordingly. It might be a quick 5 minute chat in a private room, or it might be a coffee and a sofa sit down situation. Or it could be more serious than that even, and it could be an invitation to a scheduled meeting in your office. But either way, it’s better to assess the severity of the conversation and consider the surroundings accordingly. If it is rather serious, it might even be wise to involve a witness. A third party might be necessary when dealing with policy violations or when disciplinary interaction may be required. 

6. Be fair & be confidential 

It’s so important that you make sure that you treat everyone the same in your team and hold everyone to the same standards. And it’s also very important that as a manager you do not involve other employees if an issue arises with a particular member of staff. That’s partly to do with not disrupting the rest of the office dynamic, but also about respecting that person's privacy. If a difficult conversation leaks into the office community, it can cause an irritating after effect like a shock wave. The idea of confronting tough conversations is to defuse potential problems, not escalate them by turning them into a topic of gossip for the other team members! 

7. Really listen

Sometimes, especially when we think we are in the right, it takes a lot of patience to listen to an opposing opinion. But, it is imperative as a manager that you give people the chance to speak. The last thing you want is to become ‘that’ manager who does what they want despite what their employees have to say. It also allows you to gather an educated response to their side of the coin. Get all the information before you make your next move. You might find that after hearing your staff’s side of the story that your whole course of action changes. Again to use the example of an employee that is underperforming, or they seem like they are coming in late, with one shoe on and a bad attitude. That person may have been through something personal that is affecting their headspace at work. Difficult conversations are cathartic and will often unveil root causes to problems in the workplace.

To use another scenario, consider how you might handle two employees who clash. If their relationship begins to affect the rest of the office atmosphere in a negative way, then it’s important to intervene and quickly! Make sure to listen to both sides of the story equally and prepare yourself with a couple suggestions of resolution. But they key. Listen, and care. 

8. Review review review!

Show your team that you really do care by checking in again with them, no matter how hard the conversation was, it is healthy to revisit them in a controlled manner and demonstrate that you are taking the time to continually support them. At the end of the day, we are all human and although conflict happens from time to time, it’s natural and almost necessary for a healthy and functioning office culture. 

So, next time you feel a tough conversation brewing, don't shy away from it. Take a deep breath, prepare, and tackle the situation before it gets out of control. 

You’ve got this!


At GCB Recruitment we specialise in a range of sectors from Property jobs to Finance roles. We always have a great selection of estate agency jobs across the nation. If you need support finding a new career or you are looking to list a vacancy at your business, then look no further! Get in touch today on 01603 667777.


Hello admin, You always provide key takeaways and summaries.
Posted on Thursday, March 09, 2023 21:26 by Alejandro Fredrickson
Hello admin, Your posts are always well organized and easy to understand.
Posted on Wednesday, February 15, 2023 11:21 by Kathaleen Faison

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