In life it is inevitable that we will encounter challenges. One of those challenges involve having difficult conversations with loved ones, our partners or children, colleagues and peers, your boss, staff members that report to us, or trainees on training courses … even some students. There are probably many more examples of difficult conversations, and while this blog is predominantly focused on having difficult conversations as a teacher trainer or manager, the ideas could be applied to other difficult conversations you might need to have.

We will look at what to do before a difficult conversation and how to prepare mentally (and perhaps physically) for the conversation, a few key points to keep in mind during the conversation, and how to reflect on the conversation afterwards to ensure you continue to develop your ability to have difficult conversations.



Before the conversation

1. Reframe

When you approach a conversation as ‘a really difficult conversation’ then the likelihood of failed communication and an increase in fear is also very likely. Before a difficult conversation, consider why you are having the conversation and what needs to be achieved in that conversation. Then frame it accordingly. It is a conversation to tell a DELTA candidate they have failed a lesson and find a way to make sure they pass the next one. It is a conversation to address a customer complaint. It is a conversation to tell my boss I cannot be part of a certain project.


2. Understand and respect your fears

There is a meme that states FEAR is False Evidence Appearing Real. I detest it. Fear is a very real emotion and is there to protect us or allow us to take the necessary precautions. Respect your fears and understand why you have them. Is it because of the power dynamic in the conversation? Are you fearful of giving people bad news? Are you fearful of how the person might react? Understanding these fears allows you to prepare for them and inform how you might feel during the conversation. This allows you to recognise emotions when they set in and address them.


3. Refer to policy

If you have a specific policy in terms of issues that need to be addressed in the conversation, refer to that policy. Good policies are there for a good reason, and not referring to them means you are missing out on one of the support tools that could help with approaching a difficult conversation. One of the last things I suggest in this blog post (see After the conversation below) is to update the policy if there are gaps in it, as this allows your learning to be available to other managers, trainers or teachers in your organisation.


4. Plan without a script

Once you have reframed the conversation, plan how you will approach the conversation. Having a negotiation tactic in mind is always a good idea. If you want something, what are you willing to give? If you need to deliver bad news, how would you have liked that news to be delivered to you? Can you offer support to the person receiving the bad news and if so, what? Which objections might you be dealing with?

A key here is to not plan the conversation in so much detail that you script it. That is bound to mean that you fail to notice or respond to issues that arise in the conversation, and make you appear distant. The person on the other side will always be more important than your plan. Remember you are dealing with a person.


5. Choose an appropriate setting

Make sure that you are choosing a time and place for the conversation to take place. Having a difficult conversation with a teacher in the teacher’s room, or perhaps just before lunch when people are hungry, could negatively impact the effectiveness of the conversation.



During the conversation

1. Listen

People have lots of different views, experiences, and opinions. You cannot understand another person’s point of view or experience without listening to them. In my experience, people have often realised there was a problem before the conversation, and by listening to them and giving them time to speak, you will often notice that they either admit to a problem or make suggestions to a solution without you having to force the matter. Remember a difficult conversation is still a dialogue.


2. Acknowledge the other point of view

Even if you completely disagree with their point of view, acknowledge it. And perhaps restate it in your own words. This allows them time to realise that you have been listening, and perhaps clarify points which you might have misinterpreted. It also sets the tone for acknowledging the other point of view and could lead to a less stressful and more open dialogue, especially when looking at how to move forward.


3. Show empathy and compassion

It is never easy to deliver bad news, or tell someone they have failed, or to say no to a request. It is often equally difficult to be on the receiving end of that. Keep that in mind when you are having the conversation and consider consistently how the other person is receiving the message and how you can deliver the message and show compassion at the same time.


4. Avoid emotional language

When you have reframed the conversation, keep that goal in mind and stick to that as a topic. Avoid emotional language that makes it about the people in the conversation, and rather just focus on the actions or issues at hand. Also, when possible, avoid consistent reference to the past. ‘You always do this and that’ attacks the person. ‘You did this, and we are only talking about this right now’ focuses the conversation and avoids distractions and personal attacks.


5. Agree on actions

More often than not, action points come out of a difficult conversation. That could be in the form of support, or an action plan to rectify a problem, or even just an agreement to part ways. If the conversation has been reframed with a goal in mind, then be sure to also agree on the actions going forward. If you have not reached an agreement, set a time and a date for a follow up conversation and then stick to it.



After the conversation

1. Follow up on the actions

Once actions have been agreed upon, follow up on them. Especially if you need to take responsibility for some of the actions. Lead by example following the conversation so that the other party can see that you are as committed to resolving issues as what you would like them to be.


2. Reflect

This is really one of the few ways to get better at difficult conversations. Think about what you did before, during and after the conversation, and what you could have done better. Could you have shown compassion in a more authentic way? Was there a choice of words that might have been better? Is there another resource of support that you can use?


3. Inform policy

If you have a policy, update the policy after difficult conversations of a specific nature. This ensures that others in the same position as you later on would have something more concrete to go on than what you might have had.



Looking forward

Difficult conversations can take up a lot of space in your head, and that could mean hours of unproductivity or spending time and effort to avoid having a difficult conversation. By following the advice in this blog, you should be able to free up a lot of time and worry less about difficult issues that you might need to deal with. Remember that a difficult conversation is always with another person, and people have their own motives and points of view, and despite what we might think, people are generally not trying to make life as difficult as possible for us. We may not always agree with their opinions and reasons, but it have to keep them in mind during difficult conversations. And by doing that, we not only develop our own ability to deal with difficult conversations, but we also gather more insight into others and become more empathetic and compassionate at the same time. We just have to take a little leap of faith and engage with difficult conversations in a planned, systematic manner.

Good luck! And do please share any extra advice related to this post, or stories of how it worked for you in the comments below – we’d love to know how you get on and/or hear your suggestions.