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Having difficult conversations with staff members or superiors is something that HR leaders have to deal with on an occasional basis. Research shows us that there are three main types of difficult conversations that people are faced with regularly. 

  • The “What Happened?” Conversation – In these types of conversations, the dialogue centers around what happened or should happen. The most common mistake made here is that people start arguing about who’s right. People also tend to assume meanings and play the blame game. Instead, they should focus on exploring the other’s point of view, understand it, and think in terms of contributing to a solution.
  • The “Feelings” Conversation – Difficult conversations also typically involve feelings, in one form or another. These are a result of thoughts based on negotiable perceptions. Often, these feelings are not addressed directly, interfering with the flow of the discussion.
  • The “Identity” Conversation – This is where people begin to examine what’s at stake and what do they stand to lose or gain. What impact will the topic have on their personal and professional life? These issues determine the degree to which people feel anxious or off-centered.

Facts Are Not Always the Answer

In many cases, when people complain about “bad conversations,” they tend to place the responsibility elsewhere. Most people also tend to overestimate their communication skills. This happens predominantly with intelligent people, who find it more difficult to admit that they don’t know something or are hesitant to ask others for help.

Intelligent people also tend to prioritize logic over emotion. While this makes theoretical sense, the emotional element associated with difficult conversations doesn’t respond to facts. If, for instance, a friend or loved one shares his or her feelings about a personal tragedy, they are not looking for statistics or the psychological effects described in research books.

Also, favoring facts in a conversation doesn’t make us impervious to unconscious biases or logical fallacies. People will almost always fall on known patterns of thinking when they are trying to solve a problem. Yet, these patterns don’t typically produce factually correct answers or help to correctly interpret what’s actually being said during difficult conversations.

What Makes For an Effective Communication

Whenever you find yourself in a conversation gone wrong, and it has become apparent that you misunderstood something, it’s always better to ask for clarifications. Never assume you know what happened before asking the other person’s perspective.

Make sure to actually listen and don’t judge the answer to your question. Empathy plays a key role in active listening. If you find yourself annoyed by others’ conversation flaws, ask people’s opinions about whether you have them as well. Don’t fall into the all-too-common cliche of just nodding your head as the other person speaks. These gestures will only distract you from listening.

Lastly, make sure to keep conflicts impersonal. Aim to critique and challenge ideas, not the person. Also, focus your efforts on finding a solution and not to “win” the argument. Look to comprehend the other person’s point of view and ask yourself, “What if the other person is right?” It’s in every HR leader’s best interest to learn from those they disagree with.

Your goal is never to lecture your conversational partner during difficult conversations. The goal is to listen and to give and take. How is your leadership team handling their conversations in the workplace? Is there a standard practice, or does each leader follow his or her instinct? I want to find out more about your methods for handling these matters.

I would welcome the opportunity to at least connect to discuss. Book an appointment with me at or call me at +1 (604) 943-0800.

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Inscape Consulting Group
Greg Nichvalodoff, BSc. BM (Honors), MBA, PCC, CMC
Office: 604.943.0800
Mobile: 604.831.4734