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Challenging conversations and how to manage them

Challenging conversations and how to manage them "Excuse me! There's a problem." "What's happened?" "Where do you want to start?" Take your pick.

  • Simon's been posting derogatory comments about you on a social networking site.
  • Mary failed to get the expected promotion and is very upset.
  • Phil is waiting to complain about a colleague making sexist comments in the canteen.

Hopefully not a typical Monday morning, but we can all be ambushed by difficult line management issues. The first question many managers ask themselves is 'is it my responsibility to sort it out?' If the answer is 'yes' there can still be a real reluctance to get caught up in very emotional or difficult performance and conduct issues. Get it wrong and the employee may go absent, work less effectively or you may get landed with a grievance. Get it right and you can improve levels of performance, attendance and employee engagement.

The Acas guide pdf icon Challenging conversations and how to manage them [195kb] and our training on Having difficult conversations will help you to stay in control of whatever situation comes your way. If you have an urgent issue to deal with and need to get some quick practical advice, the pdf icon Challenging conversations - step by step table [45kb] is available.

Watch this video to see how conversations can sometimes go wrong

word icon Having difficult conversations transcript [83kb]

Questions and Answers

What is a difficult conversation?

A difficult or challenging conversation is a conversation where you have to manage emotions and information in a sensitive way in order to:

  • address poor performance or conduct
  • deal with personal problems
  • investigate complaints/deal with grievances
  • comfort or reassure someone - for example, if they are to be made redundant
  • tackle personality clashes.

The conversation usually takes place one-to-one and can really test a line manager's skills.

Why should I act now?

If you do not act now then you could:

  • mislead the employee by giving the impression that there is no problem
  • deny the employee the chance to improve or put things right
  • damage the productivity and efficiency of your business
  • lower the morale amongst team members.

How can I make the conversations more bearable?

You can help make conversations with your employees less difficult by:

  • having a quiet word at the first sign that something is wrong
  • keeping in touch with your staff and the team
  • using employee representatives as sounding boards for how staff are feeling about issues.

It is far better to nip problems in the bud, wherever possible, rather than waiting for them to become more entrenched or complicated.

What skills do I need to handle a challenging conversation?

Many of the skills needed to manage difficult conversations and behaviour are often referred to, in a rather derogatory tone, as 'soft'. But there's nothing soft about dealing with an emotional or confrontational employee who may appear to be trying to unsettle or undermine you.

In order to manage a difficult conversation you need to think carefully about:

  • the way you communicate
  • your ability to take control of a meeting and
  • your levels of self-belief.

Training can help to give you the confidence you need.

Raising an issue at work video

When there's a problem at work, it should be tackled quickly. But which is best - the informal approach or using a formal channel for grievances? Our advisors explain your options.

Handling Difficult Conversations - Acas training

This training will show you how to prepare for difficult or crucial conversations, how to manage and control the workplace discussion process and how to ensure you are talking to employees in as productive a way as possible. Acas will improve your confidence and enhance your knowledge and skills for reducing stress, taking action and tackling difficult conversations head on.

View Handling Difficult Conversations course details, dates and locations or enquire online.

Other related Acas training

Discipline and grievance

Conducting investigations

Performance management

Skills for supervisors