People Management
11 min.

5 Communication Techniques for Managing Difficult Conversations

Andrée-Anne Blais-Auclair
Last updated on 16 May. 2023
Published on 25 Apr. 2023
main qui tient un parapluie avec une bulle de discussion

Good communication skills are key to smooth and efficient interactions at work. And this is even truer when you need to have a difficult conversation.

Table of contents

Difficult conversations are inevitable, both in our personal and professional lives. When we lack the resources for these conversations, things can get very uncomfortable, and relationships can even be broken.

It won’t be uncommon for you, as a manger, to have to broach difficult topics with employees… and it can be a huge source of stress.

For the conversation to be successful, you need to choose the right time and place—and you must be prepared. But above all, you need to have a good relationship with the person you are speaking to, and you need good interpersonal skills.

This post:

  • Explains how the manager-employee relationship shapes the outcome of a difficult conversation.
  • Gives you 5 communication techniques for managing difficult conversations.

Strengthen your relationship on a daily basis

The strength of your relationship will significantly influence the outcome of a more difficult conversation. Would you approach a sensitive topic with an employee the same way you would with a friend or family member? Probably not. Each relationship is unique, and the deeper and more sincere it is, the more fertile the ground will be for a frank discussion.

According to neuropsychologist Guillaume Dulude, the deeper and stronger the relationship, the more likely it will be to survive challenges and ordeals. For example, an explosive conflict with a friend you’ve known for a short time will be more damaging than a similar conflict with a friend who has been in your life for a decade.

5 communication techniques for managing difficult conversations

Whether your relationship is weak or strong, a tough conversation will inevitably be a delicate moment. However, there are specific communication techniques that can mitigate the potential negative impacts.

1. Show your vulnerability

Did you know that the more vulnerable you are in your interactions with someone, the more tempted they will be to open up themselves?

Vulnerability is the Holy Grail of interpersonal relationships. No sturdy or authentic relationship would be possible without it.

So how does one show vulnerability as a manager, you ask?

First, drop the small talk.

Chitchat about the weather and the Canadiens’ last game won’t help you build a solid, lasting relationship. You will be spinning your wheels. Small talk has its place, but that’s a topic for another day.

Small talk generates a string of trivial exchanges that tend to fizzle out instead of deepening your relationship.
Frank, or better yet, emotionally charged conversations are where we share our experiences or challenges, giving the other person a glimpse into a vulnerable part of ourselves.

Authentic communication is rich and helps develop closeness and attachment. One-on-ones are an especially good time to show your vulnerability.

Why make yourself vulnerable in order to manage a difficult conversation?

Shared vulnerability strengthens your relationship and makes it more resilient, so to speak. In turn, this resilience will enable you to tackle more sensitive topics, which you’ll be able to discuss without too much strain. Conversely, it doesn’t take much to end shallow, superficial relationships.

Putting it into practice

A new employee joins your team and you’re getting to know her.

❌ Hi Sophie! So, you’re not having too much of a hard time integrating into a new team, are you? I hope your new co-workers are taking good care of you!

This last sentence cuts off Sophie’s opportunity to really talk about how she feels on her new team. The expected answer is almost certainly a timid “Yep, all good!” or a similar reply.

Instead, try this on for size:

✅ Hi Sophie! Would you like to come sit here for a minute?

Once seated.

Personally, I always find it really hard to leave a team that I’ve grown used to and join a new one, which means I’ll have to create new relationships and everything. It’s a big challenge. How do you feel about your new team?

2. Hone your active listening skills

Effective communication begins with knowing how to listen. A person who feels heard and welcomed when they speak will be much more comfortable opening up. Show interest in the person you’re speaking to—be truly available.

Active listening is a golden skill for developing a relationship.

The hallmarks of active listening are:

Active listening means you’re 100% there for the other person and you have only one goal, which is to understand them. Rephrasing—in other words, repeating what the other person just said but in different, more concise or more explicit terms—is your best friend.

Rephrasing is instrumental to effective communication, improving listening, encouraging everyone to speak their mind, and highlighting each individual’s contribution. It also lets you check things, nuance and correct your understanding, and take the heat out of a situation.

Why develop active listening?

No relationship can last without reciprocity—in other words, both parties must participate. It takes two to tango. Part of reciprocity is listening when it’s time to listen. Listening intently and sincerely making room for the other person will make them feel important and strengthen your relationship. A strong relationship will be resilient, and like a resilient person, it will be able to weather difficult conversations.

Putting it into practice

Sophie comes to speak to you about her difficult relationship with her colleague Simon, who speaks to her disrespectfully.

❌ Oh, right, Simon… Everyone finds that he’s a bit of a handful, but he’s good at what he does. Ignore him… (implying that she should ignore his poor manners with others)

✅ Right, if I understand correctly, Simon’s behavior is affecting your morale and you don’t feel as motivated at work as a result.

The next step might be to find out what her need is in speaking to you, and to see if the situation with Simon needs to be addressed more generally.

3. Discussing actions and feelings—not the person

When having a difficult conversation, focus on describing the behavior and how you feel. Avoid generalizing about the person in any way.

Why talk about the actions and feelings rather than the person?

When you talk about actions and feelings, the other person is less likely to feel like they’re under attack. This is just like a parent addressing their child’s behavior (“I don’t like it when you speak to me like that”) as opposed to making a generalization (“You’re so rude!”). The same principle applies to exchanges between adults.

Putting it into practice

Your employee Sophie is often caught up in conflicts with the team, and the other team members are exhausted.

❌ You’re in the middle of all the conflicts and the team has had enough. If this goes on, most of them won’t want to work with you anymore.

✅ Responding to your colleagues curtly is likely to spark conflict and irritation. I find it unfortunate that the team is losing its peace and harmony over these conflicts. What do you think? I’d like to discuss the situation.

4. Speaking at the right time

It has been established that in informal chitchat, the interval between people speaking is on average only 200 milliseconds—and often less. Compare this with the 600 milliseconds it takes to get ready to utter a single word and the 1,500 it takes to get ready to speak a simple sentence. What does this tell us?

You can probably guess what I’m getting at.

While the person we are speaking to is still talking, our brain is very often busy preparing what we are going to say when it’s our turn, even though we haven’t finished hearing them out.

Even as we prepare to speak, we need to listen so that we can check if our prediction is correct and find the right time to jump in. This multitasking is very demanding for our brains, and it’s exactly what we should try to avoid as much as possible when having a difficult conversation.

To communicate effectively, we must show restraint and curb our impulse to speak. The reason is simple: your employee is no fool; they will quickly detect when you aren’t fully in listening mode.

What’s more, taking a moment to think BEFORE you speak allows you to express yourself more wisely. And this is especially true during a more difficult conversation where lots of emotions are involved. Emotions interfere with our judgment and lead to miscommunications.

Putting it into practice

Speaking at the right time means several things:

  • Holding back from interrupting the other person
  • Taking a step back before expressing ourselves when our emotions are rising
  • Taking notes so we can refer back to them later
  • Leaving a pause after the other person has spoken

Imagine that you’re meeting with an employee who tells you that he’s leaving for an undetermined period of time. He is exhausted and has been under a lot of pressure in recent months.

While he is emotionally telling you about what he is going through, you can:

❌ Cut in whenever you have an idea, or bombard him with questions.

✅ Let your employee speak their mind and wait until they are done, and process what they said before you think about how you’re going to answer.

5. Deciphering non-verbal language

Understanding non-verbal cues is a very important communication technique, as it provides you with information that complements the words the other person is speaking. It takes you deeper. Non-verbal communication (also called body language) refers to the aspects of a conversation that aren’t conveyed in words, i.e.:

  • Posture
  • Gesture
  • Facial expressions
  • Other expressions
  • Eye contact
  • Intonation

Since non-verbal language is harder to control than what we say, it is often revealing of what someone is really thinking or feeling, even if they don’t want to say it consciously.

Putting it into practice

In concrete terms, the important thing is to observe your employee’s non-verbal signals as much as possible during your difficult conversation. Are their arms crossed, are they leaning away from you, or are they perhaps leaning in? Are they rolling their eyes or frowning?

If you’d like to learn more, here’s a post with lots of insights on how to better read body language during a difficult conversation.

Imagine that you’re going through a performance evaluation of one of your team members. Toward the end of the meeting, when you get to career progression, you notice that she seems agitated. Suddenly she begins fidgeting in her chair and biting her lip.

You feel that she may want to tell you or ask you something. You can:

❌ Stick with the fact that she didn’t say anything and continue as if nothing happened.

✅ Choose to ask your employee if there is anything she would like to ask or tell you, but without insisting.

Relationships are paramount, so make sure to cultivate them!

As you can see, to be successful, a difficult conversation must be built on a quality relationship between you and the person you’re speaking to—and this is in addition to the effort you put into the conversation itself. If you only take away one idea from this post, never neglect the importance of your interpersonal and people skills.

Be the person-centred manager that every employee deserves.

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