Top tips for handling difficult discussions in the workplace

Handling difficult discussions in the workplace is a skill every manager and HR professional must master. Its importance is crucial, given that a recent study by Oak Engage revealed that a huge 75% of the UK’s employees have experienced a “toxic workplace”. Notably, 73% of employees who’ve experienced burnout, say a toxic workplace culture has contributed to it.

Difficult conversations in the workplace can range from performance issues to interpersonal conflicts, and addressing them effectively is key for maintaining a positive work environment. At Consult HR, we understand the challenges involved and so, with this in mind, we have compiled our top tips to help you navigate these tricky discussions with confidence and professionalism.

  1. Prepare thoroughly

When it comes to handling difficult discussions, preparation is definitely key. Before the meeting, gather all relevant information and documents. Understand the context and specifics of the issue, and consider the perspectives of everyone involved. This will help you stay focused on the facts and provide a clear, objective basis for the conversation.

Actionable tip: Create an outline of the points you need to cover and anticipate potential reactions or questions. This will help you stay on track and manage the discussion effectively.

  1. Choose the right setting

The environment in which you hold the discussion can significantly impact its outcome. Choose a private, neutral location where all parties feel comfortable to speak openly without fear of being overheard.

Actionable tip: Schedule the meeting at a time when you won’t be rushed, allowing for a thorough discussion without interruptions.

3. Be clear & direct

When addressing difficult topics, clarity and directness are essential. Avoid beating around the bush or sugar-coating the issue. Be honest and straightforward about the problem, explaining its impact on the team or organisation.

Actionable tip: Use “I” statements to express your concerns without sounding accusatory. For example, say, “I’ve noticed that your recent reports have missed several deadlines,” instead of “You never meet deadlines.”

4. Listen actively

Active listening is crucial during difficult discussions. Allow the other person to share their perspective and express their feelings without interruption. Show empathy and understanding, even if you disagree with their viewpoint.

Actionable tip: Use non-verbal cues like nodding and maintaining eye contact to show you are engaged. Summarise their points to ensure you’ve understood them correctly, e.g., “What I’m hearing is that you feel…”

5. Stay calm & composed

Emotions can run high during difficult discussions. It’s important to remain calm and composed, even if the other person becomes upset or defensive. Keeping your cool will help de-escalate the situation and foster a more productive dialogue.

Actionable tip: Practice deep breathing techniques or take a brief pause if you feel your emotions rising. This can help you maintain your composure and respond thoughtfully.

6. Focus on solutions

Rather than dwelling on the problem, steer the conversation towards finding solutions. Collaborate with the other person to develop actionable steps to address the issue and prevent it from recurring.

Actionable tip: Ask open-ended questions to involve them in the problem-solving process, such as “What steps do you think we can take to improve this situation?”

7. Follow up

After the discussion, it’s important to follow up to ensure that agreed-upon actions are being implemented and to assess progress. This shows your commitment to resolving the issue and supports accountability.

Actionable tip: Schedule a follow-up meeting or send an email summarising the discussion and outlining the next steps. This helps to reinforce the commitments made and provides a record for future reference.

Handling difficult discussions in the workplace is never easy, but with the right approach, it can lead to positive outcomes and stronger working relationships. By preparing thoroughly, staying calm, and focusing on solutions, you can navigate these conversations effectively.

At Consult HR, we’re here to support you with expert advice and resources to manage all your HR challenges. If you need further assistance or personalised advice on handling difficult workplace discussions, contact Consult HR today. We can help you create a more harmonious and productive workplace. Email: