How to prepare for and conduct a difficult conversations as a Manager

We all, from time to time, have a situation that requires us to have what is often termed a ‘difficult conversation’. Whether it be with a direct report who isn’t meeting performance expectations, our manager when we are not feeling sufficiently supported in our role, or with a client / stakeholder about their expectations versus what you believe you can deliver.


A recent HR daily blog featured a post by Jan Terkelsen that shared some excellent tips for preparing, conducting and following up after one of these conversations. Click here to access the full article.

Summary points in Jan’s article:

1. Preparing for the conversation

  • Inform the other party – it is important to let the other person know when and where the conversation and a brief idea about the subject matter of the conversation. Be conscious of how and when this is delivered.
  • Set the stage – consider the location and set up of the location – a round table is ideal.
  • Assess the facts – have some specific data (examples) but also be prepared to explore. Our Simple ‘TIPs’ for providing feedback using SOI blog and template below can help here.
  • Address the emotions – both parties are likely to experience a range of emotions during the conversation. Be empathetic and anticipate possible responses, and be mindful of triggers for your emotions.
  • Acknowledge your part – What role might you have played in this situation? How might things be perceived based on previous interactions? Have you done all you could to set this person up for success? (Click here to see a template for diagnosing poor performance.)
  • Identify positive outcomes – it is important that you have ideas about what a resolution might look like – eg an action plan, a goal to work towards etc.
  • Develop a strategy not a script – have a clear idea about what your initial words are going to be, and the steps you expect to work through. (Our template below can help you.)

2. Conducting the difficult conversation

  • Acknowledge, articulate, then ask – the author suggests to “acknowledge what they are good at in their work, what they are delivering that is working, and thank them for being prepared to have this conversation with you.  ​Then frame the problem, being articulate about what the problem is and the impact that it’s having. Ask them if they understand the problem fully and what their position is on it.”
  • Look for common ground – this helps with keeping the conversation focussed on positive outcomes.
  • Adapt and rebalance – preparation helps you be more present in the discussion, but you also need to process things that become clear during the conversation itself. Consider how to respond appropriately.
  • Establish commitments – who is going to do what? What is going to change? Write these down. Check for common understanding.
  • Finish on an affirming note – phrasing a statement that relates the situation back to positive intention – and checking for agreement helps both parties feel they can move forward positively

3. Follow Up

  • Organise a follow up conversation – it is important to ensure you touch base on what was agreed.
  • Reflect – take some time out to reflect on the process – what worked, what didn’t, what will you do next time? Jot down notes. Consider debriefing with someone.


Want more information?

We have prepared a simple preparation template that you can use in your preparation. It references a ‘difficult conversation’ with a direct report, but could easily be tweaked for other people with whom you may need to have a conversation. Click E&A Feedback planning template using SOI to download a copy.

We have written more posts on this topic.

Click here for more blogs on ‘feedback’ or dealing with under-performance