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Training Difficult Conversations


I have been assigned the task of writing a training session to give new managers the tools to help them have difficult conversations with their staff.
The plan is to cover topics such as being able to deal directly with excessive sickness and lateness, how to handle difficult team members, and how to have the confidence to be able to tackle these issues before they become too big.
I think it is a great idea, but am slightly at a loss where to start. I would appreciate any tips on this, not least because difficult conversations have never been my forte and I am really not equipped with the answers! Has anyone done similar training, or can recommend websites or books?
All help will be gratefully received.
Many thanks,

Nikki Brun

13 Responses

  1. Difficult conversations
    Hi Nikki

    Most manager to staff conversations fall flat because basic components are not in place. Firstly, to focus on the managers role

    – They must be in the right frame of mind (not tired, hungover, in a bad mood etc.)

    -The conversation must be timed correctly and plenty of notice given

    -They must adjust their body language accordingly

    -They should ask questions rather than preach or judge and listen (a bit on different types of questioning and listening techniques would be good)

    Finally they must be aware that like most human beings when we have to deal with a confrontation of any kind, that adrenaline and other hormones will be being released into the body and will affect how they act. If you are aware of this you can (with practice) adjust your behaviour accordingly.

    Also include how the employee is feeling. Generally, people don’t set out to be difficult and will resist anyones effort to fix them, because, they don’t think they’re broken! It could be that in the beginning of the conversation, the employee will (usually) be defensive like a cornered animal. Its a very important stage because depending on what the manager does can either escalate or de-escalate the situation. They can wade in and shout back or acuse them of being in-subordinate and ruin the whole relationship, or they can take a deep breath and reply gentily and ask questions to get to the root of the problem, hence building that all important communicatio channel and relationship. Hope this helps, feel free to contact me if you need anything else


  2. Assertiveness
    Hi Nikki,

    What they need is for someone to ‘show’ them how it is done. They need to see assertveness so they can see it is not as difficult as it seems. Give me a ring and I will explain.

    07970 902611

  3. role play
    Hi Nikki
    I think that one of the best places to start is to look at your companies policies for example your policy on sickness. Then design a course around that. In the course you need to look at how to identify patterns/unacceptable levels of sickness and also how to tackle these. Role play would be fab. Split the group of managers into smaller groups, give them 2/3 dummy personnel files for them to analyise and decide the course of action, they then need to role play this. It works best if the trainer (s) act as the employee. You can cover lots of topics this way, someone who is absent a lot, someone who has a conduct issue, someone who has a capability issue.

    Hope this helps in some way


  4. Difficult conversations
    Hi Nikki

    Difficult conversations seem to be very few people’s forte. When I have worked with middle managers/team leaders, this is usually the aspect of their work that they find really challenging and they often make matters worse by avoiding addressing the difficult issue in the early stages.

    For me, the most crucial aspect is regularly giving (and receiving) appropriate feedback – not waiting for the major event to happen before you start talking to the member of staff about their behaviour.

    You might want to consider including some work on listening skills at the start of the training, since this underpins much of the work.

    Seeing how feedback is given and received by watching short video clips can help the group to identify what works/doesn’t work – BBC have recently produced some training clips, including feedback. Alternatively, if you are able to produce in-house recordings, you could record different ways of running these difficult meetings for the whole group to watch and comment on.

    If you and a colleague feel sufficiently confident, you could model these approaches for the group.

    I agree with Jodie – at some stage it is helpful for them to decide how they would approach different scenarios before role playing them. Some will no doubt find this quite challenging.

    If you want a more detailed approach, Fierce Conversations by Susan Scott might be worth a look.

    Hope this helps, please contact me if you want to discuss further

    Andrew Newton

  5. Saying what needs to be said, with care and without compromise
    That’s my guideline. (adapted from John Heron’s The Facilitator’s Handbook) In the work I do with managers it seems to me that some are good at communicating ‘care’ and others are good at communicating the hard line, the task in hand, the consequences. But few manage to get the balance right between both.
    Saying it like it is, up front and being absolutely clear about the message is the first step.
    Secondly, meeting the communication needs of the other person, showing you care.
    And thirdly, not chickening out or softening the main points with the result that the person takes away the wrong message.
    Check s/he understands by requesting that they clarify for you what you’ve explained.

    Good book – Difficult conversations by Anne Dickson.

  6. Difficult Conversations

    There wasn’t an e-mail address to contact you but if you e-mail me ([email protected])I can send you some training handouts which I think might be useful.



  7. directive coaching for those difficult conversations
    Hi Nikki
    Have you read the featured article this week, coaching poor performance? The process outlined is designed to give peole the skills and confidence to have those difficult conversations in a constructive future orrientated state that aims to uncover the real underlying issues, and build the working relationship. We specialise in delivering this training. If you would like to discuss it further then please call me.
    Best wishes, Phil Morgan 01654 710624

  8. How to prepare for a difficult conversation
    I have used this individual activity to help participants to analyse a difficult situation and to develop a strategy for dealing with it.

    1 Describe the situation/difficulty/problem which needs to be confronted.

    2 Write the name of the person or group which needs to be confronted about
    this situation.

    3 List the costs of not solving this problem/changing the situation.

    4 List some reasons why you have not confronted this person/group about this

    5 If you confronted the person or group and you were successful:

    What would they do?

    What would the new situation look like?

    6 Write an opening paragraph of what you would say to the person/group.

    7 Their worst possible response to my remarks would be:

    8 My response would be:

    9 The potential benefits to me of confronting this situation would be:

    10 As a result of this exercise I am going to:

    One method could be for 1 and 2 to be completed, then pass the ‘problem’ on to someone else in the group to analyse. The originator of the problem could also complete the analysis and compare it with their colleagues. This can be followed by group discussion and feedback. Since this involves identifying a current and real at-work situation then confidentiality would need to be included in the ground rules. Alternatively, if it was felt that real at-work situations couldn’t be used then typical difficult work situations could be substituted.

  9. difficult conversations
    Lots of good stuff here already. One more small thing I’ve found very useful, and it always goes down well with people I’m training.

    It’s an old assertiveness formula. People like it as it gives them something to hold on to, they feel safe,and it usually has a good effect.
    It goes like this.

    “When you…. (eg come in late 3 times a week)… it has the effect that… (eg it sets a bad example, customers have to wait etc. Must be real and observable).”

    Take a breath.
    “What I would prefer is for you to ….(e.g Come in on time).
    The benefits to you would be …. (eg you won’t have a disciplinary, you get your work done in time etc).
    The benefits to me would be…. (eg I have the whole team together to give out the work, I don’t get complaints from customers etc).
    The benefits to the group would be….( etc)
    Take a breath
    “What do you think about that?”
    They comment or justify.
    e.g.”Oh but I have to take the kids to school and I have to be late…”
    “So what is your plan to.. (either get in early, or reduce the bad effects of the lateness)

  10. what makes a conversation “Difficult” and how to deal with it
    There have been some really useful ideas put forward. Can I recommend a book that looks at what makes any conversation “difficult” – not from the viewpoint of the subject matter but of the underlying agendas each person has.It is called “Difficult Conversations” by Stone, Patten and Heen, published by Penguin in 2000, and is based on practices used in mediation. It is very clear; has useful chapter summaries and exercises; and it really made a lot of sense to me insofar as why the same topic can be difficult to deal with in some situations and not in others. Also a useful book for all aspects of life.

  11. Materials available
    Nikki, I have some materials available for a short training/ coaching session on this and would be happy to send them to you if you let me have your email address

    Good Luck!


  12. Difficult Conversations
    Go to Nancy Slessenger’s web site at
    Her book on this area is excellent. It would also be worth talking to her. She has done extensive research and helped many organisations and individuals.

  13. Scenarios for difficult conversations
    Could anyone please send me any scenarios from training courses on having difficult conversations and managing discipline and conduct, my e-mail address is [email protected]


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