Not the time for tea: how to have a difficult conversation

If you have joined me over the past couple of weeks as we have explored why difficult conversations are sometimes necessary in the workplace and how to plan for these – today is the big one! How to actually run that conversation.

There are some simple guidelines you can follow to foster a more positive outcome from the conversation. Here they are:

No time for tea

This is not the time to have small talk or offer refreshments in the hope they will “feel more comfortable” – it will prolong the inevitable and may even make them feel more nervous or stressed. You need to simply start by thanking them for attending and outlining the purpose of the meeting, and what you are hoping to resolve or achieve. Keep it simple, and use language that focuses on the issue or behaviour and how it affects you or the team. For example: “I would like to understand why you are having difficulty arriving to work on time – this makes it hard for us to run our early morning team catch up”.

Give examples

This is where your preparation will help. Have ready specific dates or examples where the behaviour was present.

Provide opportunity

Once you have stated the problem and provided examples, invite the individual to share their view, and respond to what you have said – acknowledge their point of view and a willingness to find a solution. This is not “pandering” to them – but framing the conversation in a way that is sensitive to their feelings and point of view – this is really important to achieving a positive outcome – questions like “how do you see it?” or “what leads you to say that?” will encourage them to share their side but also highlight aspects you may not have considered. Remember, don’t interrupt!

Acknowledge your contribution

In your preparation for the conversation, did you identify any possible contribution to the issue or behaviour from your side? Maybe you reflected on the lack of orientation or induction in a specific area? Maybe you identified you should have addressed this issue a long time ago? Make sure you articulate this in the conversation – for example: “I apologise if this was not made clear during your orientation…”

Present solutions

Be prepared to put aside any personal differences and approach the conversation with a genuine curiosity and desire to solve the problem. After the individual has presented their point of view – reassess and re-state your position based on what they have shared. For example: “I can see from what you have said that you thought…..however, moving forward, I would like….”. Once you have presented your solution – invite the individual to comment on the solution and discuss alternatives if required.


To conclude the conversation, summarise the key points in a clear manner and outline the next steps. Document the conversation and provide a copy to the individual with any agreed outcomes and time frames, any support or training required and any consequences if the agreed outcomes are breached – make a time to review the agreed outcomes in the future and thank them for their time.

I hope the above steps help you feel more confident if you need to have that difficult conversation in your workplace. If you are a member of Maida Learning, check out the handy template now available in your members' area to help you plan for conversations in your practice.

Have a great week!

Planning, Staffing, Culture

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