Part 1. What is it really like to have a difficult conversation at work?

My Doctoral research at the University of Hertfordshire, and interest in exploring difficult conversations at work has been inspired by my own personal experiences of navigating the challenges of difficult conversations in the workplace and through my work as an aspiring Occupational Psychologist.  

Many of us I’m sure have experienced moments in our professional or personal lives where we have needed to discuss something important, sensitive, or emotionally significant to us and for some, this has been incredibly tough to do.  

What comes to mind when you hear the phrase ‘difficult conversations at work’? 

Did you think about giving or receiving negative feedback, conflict with a colleague that needed resolving, an appraisal where yours or someone else’s performance was in question. Perhaps you thought about disciplinary processes, or having to lay someone off? There are of course many work-related matters that may lead to a difficult conversation being necessary.  

My research to date has demonstrated that when faced with having a difficult conversation at work, often individuals will delay or try to avoid them. This is not new information and is something widely recognised by those in industry with an interest in or personal experiences of having difficult conversations. It also shares similarities with research literature in the medical and healthcare industry where it is commonplace to be dealing with high stakes conversations, such as declining health, diagnosis of serious illnesses such as cancer, end of life care and advance care planning.  

Whilst there are many potential contributing factors to the avoidance of difficult conversations, Fear is commonly cited as a significant factor.  

  • Fear of the unknown 
  • Fear of discomfort 
  • Fear of how others may react, respond, or feel. 
  • Fear of the potential outcomes, repercussions, or negative consequences 
  • Fear of damaging relationships 
  • Fear of the emotional nature of the conversation, getting emotional, or not knowing how to handle the emotions of others. 
  • Fear of saying or doing the wrong thing 
  • Fear about knowing how to approach the conversation and making a mistake. 

Fear, fear fear…. the list goes on!  

But what is it really like to have a difficult conversation at work? Are they really as bad as we think and are we justified in our fear of having them? 

To find out, I interviewed 13 individuals with lived experiences of difficult conversations at work, this included 11 female employees and 2 male employees. Their ages ranged from 24-60 and individuals worked in a variety of industries including hospitality, healthcare, HR, academia, consultancy, marketing, and events.  

All the participants shared an example of a difficult conversation about a work-related matter that they had been a part of at work. The topics of which varied, but included: 

  • Being dismissed 
  • Giving or receiving feedback 
  • Disagreements about workplace practices 
  • Changes in working conditions. 
  • Under performance 
  • Formal disciplinary  

Despite this, most indicated that they had experiences of difficult conversations about personal matters that impacted their work, but these were more difficult to talk about or describe.  

The most salient observations from these interviews were that in the majority of instances individuals felt blindsided by the conversation and had no prior warning of what was coming their way. This meant that they were already on the back foot upon entering into the conversation which often left them feeling anxious or worried about what was happening.  

Many individuals spoke of feeling shocked by the news they were hearing, some were deeply upset and became emotional whilst others suggested that because the conversation was unexpected and they were not warned, they felt angry and frustrated, at times becoming defensive and argumentative. All these sudden emotions made it difficult for individuals to engage in a rational and collaborative discussion and many left the conversations feeling confused, uncertain, and stressed.  

Often practitioner advice and guidance on having difficult conversations highlights the need for preparation for the conversation. This is often focused on the person initiating the conversation and not the recipient, however, the individuals I spoke with demonstrated how important it is that all parties within a conversation are given prior notification and an opportunity to prepare so that they can engage in an effective and collaborative manner.  

Many of the individuals I spoke with suggested that the person they were in the conversation with often came across as uncaring, and unsupportive. Many described their conversational partners as lacking empathy and compassion, often seeming cold and callous. Often policies and procedures were followed, but these often felt clinical or prescribed with no consideration for the human being on the other end of the process.  

It is clear from the experiences of those interviewed that the approach taken in difficult conversations matters greatly and how we treat others in these situations should be handled with sensitivity and care.  

What most interests me, however, are the complexities of having difficult conversations about personal matters that may influence our working lives. By this I mean something an individual experiences within their own private or personal lives, which indirectly influences their work in some way (whether a negative impact on performance or absenteeism for example). Such personal matters can include (but are not limited to) things such as serious health concerns, long term illness or disability, mental health, neurodiversity, bereavement and loss, relationship breakdowns, divorce, separation, addiction, gambling, etc…..  

How confident would you feeling raising or discussing something so personal at work? Would you choose to disclose what you are experiencing to someone at work? if so, who would you talk to? a manager, a peer or co-worker, a direct report?  

My MSc research explored the barriers and facilitators to working with cancer. Disclosing about an illness at work can be extremely challenging for cancer patients.  

Speaking openly about a cancer diagnosis or a poor prognosis is a very difficult thing to do. It involves revealing your inner most vulnerabilities, fears and. uncertainties. It can involve talking about sensitive or difficult topics such as death and dying in extreme instances. Choosing to share this information with those you work with is a very personal choice, but sometimes a necessity for transparency and fairness to the organisations we work for and the colleagues we work with. But are we ready to have to these tough, awkward, and difficult conversations? 

When it comes to personal matters, sharing something private and potentially sensitive requires bravery and a willingness to be vulnerable. Feeling safe to disclose, requires trust in the conversational partner and a mutual respect. Often when individuals are experiencing challenging circumstances, it can be difficult to manage alone, therefore having the opportunity to talk to others can significantly lighten the load they are facing.  

Open and honest communication was shown to be a significant factor in facilitating the continuation of work for cancer patients. Without it, patients cannot ask for or receive the support and adjustments they may need to continue working in the same or similar ways to before their diagnosis. But if individuals do not receive a supportive and compassionate response from the person they choose to share their situation with it can increase their distress and reduce the likelihood of them feeling confident and safe to share any changes in their circumstances in the future.  

But what facilitates open and honest dialogue in the workplace, whether about personal matters or work-related issues? Are some types of conversations more difficult than others? If so, why? What else can we learn about the nature of difficult conversations at work that can help us feel more prepared to have them instead of shying away from them due to fear or the desire to avoid discomfort? What do we need from our organisations and colleagues that will allow us to feel safe enough to be vulnerable and disclose when we need additional help and support?  

Keep an eye out for the next blog in this series to find out the answers we have found to some of these important questions and to learn more about navigating difficult conversations at work. 

Author: Rachel Smith (GMBPsS)  

Psychologist at Zest Psychology / PhD student at the University of Hertfordshire 

(MSc Occupational Psychology, BSc (Hons) Psychology) 


Subscribe to our blog for updates

Subscribe to Blog via Email

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Interested in getting in touch?