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Working in a team can be immensely rewarding; however, there is no doubt that teamwork comes with its challenges too.

When we are all so focussed on the goal of synergy and connectedness, it can seem counter intuitive to initiate a difficult conversation with a colleague. While some may fear a severing of connectedness as a by-product of engaging in a difficult conversation, the reality is that a preparedness to tackle the hard stuff more commonly leads to a stronger sense of mutual respect, a strengthening of purpose, improved communication and, as a consequence, improved productivity.

Many people tend to avoid difficult conversations in the workplace due to concerns about timing, pessimism around potential outcomes, personal feelings about a colleague or excusing of behavior due to the personal context of an individual.

The reality is that, if managed well, tackling a difficult conversation in a timely manner allows leaders and colleagues the opportunity to resolve workplace conflicts quickly and efficiently, lift employee engagement and enhance culture within your team.


What are the possible consequences of avoiding difficult conversations with a team?

  • Exacerbation of problems
  • Denial of an opportunity for team-mates to develop awareness of their behaviour and therefore the chance to improve
  • Damaged productivity and efficiency
  • Reduced staff engagement
  • Reduced confidence in a leader’s ability to manage a team
  • Lower morale
  • Higher absenteeism and employee turnover


What are some key tips and tricks for tackling difficult conversations in the workplace?

  • Determine whether a problem or incident is trivial and temporary, or of significance in the context of the work-place
  • Carefully determine the timing and location of your conversation, taking into consideration privacy, the dignity of the individual and the amount of time needed to give the conversation the care it needs.
  • Prepare for your conversation by asking yourself the following questions:
    • Why do you want/need to have this conversation? What is your purpose?
    • What evidence do you have to support your need for this conversation?
    • Do you have a sense of how the employee might react?
    • What is the outcome or solution you want to achieve?
    • Is this outcome realistic, or will it need to be broken into smaller steps/ pieces?
    • How will you know when the outcome has been achieved?

Remember that it is always preferable to have a face-to-face conversation. Avoid email exchanges where possible, as tone can be misinterpreted. When you are engaging with your colleague, think carefully about seating arrangements and body language. It is a good idea to prepare careful notes but don’t allow your listening to be hampered by over-reliance on these notes. Be prepared to allow the person time to digest the information and revisit a conversation the following day.


What is a useful framework for managing a challenging conversation?

The framework below may assist you in moving through the different phases of a difficult conversation.

1) State the problem

State the problem and provide examples. Explain the impact this is having on the organisation/stakeholders.

Avoid small talk which may undermine the significance of the conversation, or accidentally trivialise the significance of this to the employee.

Use statements which depersonalise the issue for an employee by focusing on an issue – not the person.

2) Listen and question

Let the employee explain their perspective.

Where appropriate, acknowledge any contribution you have made to the situation.

‘I apologise for not making this clear in our staff meeting’.

3) Acknowledge

Acknowledge the employee’s feelings.

Actively listen by confirming and clarifying your understanding of what they have said.

4) Reassess your position

Has your position changed based on information they have provided?

What can you see from your position that they haven’t considered?

If appropriate, this is where you clarify your position without minimising their dignity.

5) Look for solutions

Work with the employee to develop a solution – be solutions-focused and future-focused.

Agree on the way forward.

6) Close the conversation

Clarify and document actions to be taken.

Thank the employee for their participation in the conversation.

Be sure to offer the employee support – such as an EAP service.

Establish a suitable time to follow up with a team mate to discuss progress

At Be Challenged, we would love to partner with you in the delivery of programs to enhance communication amongst your staff. We can provide opportunities for your teams to learn more about how understanding about individual perspectives and strengths can translate into the power of team connectedness.


Lisa Kelliher

Head of People & Culture/ Educational Specialist

Be Challenged


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