Difficult Conversations

Posted on April 26, 2012 by


Following our blog on ‘Difficult Conversations in the Workplace’, this week we are pleased to feature a guest blog from Eugene Clarke of TalkBuddy with some advice on dealing with awkward communication situations.

“Difficult” conversations are not simply the preserve of the manager or HR professional; in fact they’re certainly not restricted to the work situation at all.

Topics such as poor relationships, failure to meet others’ expectations, holding people responsible and even “taboos” such as hygiene or dress have to be addressed in many contexts and tend to be similarly challenging irrespective of who is initiating the conversation or what the context is.

There are, however, three steps that we can take which make these conversations less intimidating and more likely to meet their aim:

Step 1 Establish CLARITY

Often when we’re faced with someone behaving in a way we want to change, we react to it in a very subjective way so that we confuse our FEELINGS about the issue with the issue itself. This in turn reflects itself in the language we then use. We need to take care to separate our feelings from the issue. For example, instead of saying: “You’re not doing your work for this project on purpose because you dislike me” you can say: “I need this project to get finished and your participation is crucial. Can I count on you?”

Similarly our feelings often result in a choice of words that simply expresses a general dissatisfaction rather than being specific enough to let the other person know what the problem is. For example, instead of saying, “Your communication skills are poor – you need to improve them” try “Spend a little more time listening and paraphrasing our client’s needs”.

Step 2 Avoid AVOIDANCE!

Human beings are very good at not doing things we don’t want to do and we often use rationalisations to convince ourselves we are right to avoid the conversation. Common ones include:

• Procrastinating without a clear rationale. (Can’t do it today – it’s Friday and it’d spoil the weekend)

• Delaying the important conversation. (We’ll discuss this at your annual review)

• Allowing short-term improvement to overrule longer term issues. (They did come in on time today so maybe……)

• Focussing on minor “symptoms” rather than the wider problem. (Here’s another spelling mistake. And another…..)


Again we need to consider very carefully our choice of language here. We should aim to AVOID language that is:

Direct but Insensitive – “People don’t like you and you have to get better at working with others or else.”

Also to be avoided is language that is:

Indirect but Sensitive – “Have you thought at all about how you interact with others?”

Unsurprisingly we should use language that is:

Direct AND Sensitive – “Working with other departments is key to our success. I received feedback that others are having difficulties working with you and we need to explore how to change that.”

When we are choosing our words we need to be very careful not to strike an inappropriate tone such as ordering, warning blaming etc and one way to help with this is to use “I” statements rather than “You” statements.

For example instead of saying:

“You are continually late and you show up for meetings unprepared.”


“I have noticed that your meetings aren’t as effective as the rest of the team’s and I want to discuss how we can improve them. What do you think is important for an effective meeting?”

As with all forms of communication, preparation is essential for dealing with difficult conversations. Before raising the topic take time to reduce your emotional take on the topic and consider it objectively. Prepare in detail the context in which you will raise the matter. Spend time on your choice of language – even practise saying different versions out loud.

None of the above will make handling a difficult conversation enjoyable but if you follow the suggestions then dealing with a recalcitrant teenager or poorly performing colleague will be managed much more effectively.

A little about Eugene

After spending several years working in Further and Higher Education in various parts of Scotland, Eugene branched out on his own some ten years ago to set up Real Communication Ltd, a consultancy and training company which specialised in organisational and individual communication. He sold this in 2008 and after a brief flirtation with novel writing, set up TalkBuddy™ which focusses on oral communication in the business or organisational context.

TalkBuddy™ resulted from an obsession with helping people to speak more effectively and a conviction that being able to do so brings huge benefits both in the workplace and in one’s personal life. Over thirty years of experience have convinced him that conventional training classes are not the answer – most people benefit much more from individual mentoring and feedback.

He also puts his beliefs into practice through his membership of Toastmaster International where he has won several competitions at club and area level both for speaking and evaluation skills.

In TalkBuddy™ Eugene has assembled a small group of supporting associates who share his belief in the speaking philosophy of Christopher Witt – that getting your listeners to believe in you is the most important part of speaking.

Away from business and speaking he is equally obsessed with the fortunes of East Fife FC where he is a Director.

He can be contacted at eugene@talkbuddy.co.uk or by calling 0779 088 1760