Effective communication - Planning the conversation

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Difficult conversations

For most people the anxiety associated with having a difficult conversation is enough for them to avoid it altogether. And who could blame them? It’s not a pleasant experience. What if the person gets angry? What if they get upset? What if it changes their opinion of you? These are all very real possibilities.

Unfortunately, having difficult conversations is a fact of working life, and if you want to be effective, avoidance is not an option. Whether it’s with a customer, a supplier, a colleague, or a member of your team you need to know how to handle difficult conversations when the situation arises.

Planning the conversation

Difficult conversations can easily lose focus and veer off track if you don’t have a plan of what you need to say and where you want to end up. And while some difficult conversations may come out of the blue without you being able to plan for them, if it's a conversation that you are initiating, it's helpful to take a moment to think about it before you jump in.

The steps below will help you to successfully plan a difficult conversation. At first it might be helpful to actually get your thoughts on paper and document these steps, but as you become more confident with the process you might be able to work through them in your head.

It's important to remember with this process that this is not a fixed script - they are key points to help steer the conversation and ensure you say what you need to say.

  • Describe the problem - Prepare some facts and concrete examples of the problem that has led to the conversation.
  • Identify the impact - Identify the impact of the problem and prepare some examples.
  • Develop a way forward - Prepare ideas for how the problem could be rectified. This is just a jumping off point. You can negotiate during the conversation.
understanding performance management


You regularly rely on one of your colleagues to deliver work to you in order for you to do your job. They are consistently late which means you cannot deliver your work on time and are missing deadlines.

  • The problem: Colleague delivers work late. For example, the ABC report due last Monday was delivered on Thursday - three days late.
  • The impact: I have less time to complete my tasks and my work is often late. For example, the ABC report was due to the client on Friday, which only left me one day to complete it and I missed the deadline. The client wasn’t happy.
  • Way forward: Meet regularly to discuss project timelines and any risks to delivering the work on time. Colleague to notify me in advance if they are going to miss a deadline.

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Next: Effective communication - Handling negative responses