Career coach: how to deal with difficult conversations

Q As an HR director at a large, multinational organisation, I often have challenging conversations with people from across the business. Sometimes individuals become aggressive or defensive during these conversations and I’m concerned I’m not handling them as effectively as possible. Do you have any useful hints or tips to help me prepare for these types of conversations?


Carole Gaskell, founder and chief executive, Full Potential Group


A Thoroughly planning a challenging conversation or meeting is the key to success. Essentially you have five minutes or less to confidently set the reason for the meeting or conversation, the current situation – plus examples – and to state the ideal situation.


Begin by briefly explaining the reason for the conversation in a calm, confident manner. Say you will set the scene in the first five minutes – and don’t want any interruptions – before opening up the conversation.


Be fully prepared to clearly articulate:




  • the issue you want to discuss – be clear and concise, no fudging;


  • a specific example that illustrates the issue, situation or behaviour you want to challenge;


  • your emotions about this issue – this will help you stay calm and objective;


  • what is at stake – be clear about the impact the situation is having on you, the business, other people, your customers, the person themselves and their reputation;


  • your contribution to this problem – perhaps you failed to mention the issue earlier;


  • your wish to resolve the issue.

Decide what ‘good’ looks like from your perspective. How will you know the situation has been positively addressed? Be clear about the difference this will make to all concerned.


Invite the person to respond and find out their views. Press for full understanding, but take care to maintain objectivity – try using non-threatening ‘what’ questions. Show you fully grasp and acknowledge their position.


Then look at what needs to happen next. Who will be held responsible? Strengthening processes is fine, but addressing specific behaviours, agreeing tasks and holding people accountable will make the real difference.


Focus on measuring and reviewing people’s progress in addressing the situation. Where are we now? What has been learned? Has anything been left unsaid? What is needed to move forward to a resolution? Reinforcement, including accountability and recognition or reward of behaviours, will dramatically increase your success.

Make sure you have ample opportunities to practise the model using real life/work situations and get honest feedback on how well your approach worked. You must feel fully capable, confident and totally motivated to nip difficult conversations in the bud and deal with them as they arise.

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