Top tips on how to have a difficult conversation at work

There are always going to be those times in our working life when we need to have that difficult conversation.  They’re often awkward, perhaps even unpleasant, but unfortunately inevitable.  Whether it’s the perpetual poor time keeper, the underperformer or the ‘drainer’ who generates a negative vibe, we’ve all been there. 

And burying your head in the sand hoping the issue will resolve itself isn’t the solution. According to a study by career-coaching startup Bravely, 70% of employees avoid difficult conversations in the workplace.  This can lower morale and cause a toxic environment.

Whatever the reason, having a difficult conversation with a colleague can be challenging, but there are ways to approach it that can make the conversation more productive and respectful.

Here are our top tips on how to manage difficult conversations with colleagues:


Don’t avoid confrontation: Don’t be an ostrich! The longer you wait, the more difficult the conversation is going to get.  Addressing any issues immediately by offering constructive feedback gives you the chance to nip things in the bud before they become a much bigger problem.


Choose the right time and place: Make sure you have the conversation in a private and quiet location where you won’t be interrupted. Choose a time when you and your colleague are both available and not too stressed or busy.


Plan ahead: Before you have the conversation, plan what you want to say and how you want to say it. Think about the outcome you want and the potential reactions your colleague might have. Be ready to deal with their reaction.


Be confident and direct: Body language is everything.  If you have prepared, then you should be confident and able to get to the point without waffling.  Humans are usually very good at reading the room and if you are transmitting a negative energy and approaching it as an uncomfortable situation, then it will be one.


Don’t get personal: Stick to the facts and don’t make it personal.  Be professional and don’t let your emotions get in the way of a resolution. Stay calm!


Listen: Let your colleague speak and actively listen to their perspective. Don’t interrupt or dismiss their feelings.  Listening to their perspective lets the other person know you’re acknowledging their feelings. Being able to listen and communicate effectively will not only help you resolve the current problem together but will help your relationship long-term.


Use “I” statements: Use “I” statements to express how you feel about the situation, rather than placing blame or accusing your colleague.


Find a solution: As the great John Lennon once said: “There are no problems, only solutions.” Work together to find a solution or compromise that works for both of you. Avoid making demands or ultimatums.


Follow up: After the conversation, follow up with your colleague to ensure that the issue has been resolved or to check in on how things are going.

Remember, having a difficult conversation with a colleague can be uncomfortable, but it can also be an opportunity for growth and improved communication or morale in the workplace.

If you have found our top tips helpful then you might also like to read How to climb the career ladder

If you are interested in a career at Zonal please click here.

Picture of Catriona Dick

Catriona Dick

Head of Human Resources