Managing Challenging Conversations

Managing Challenging Conversations

Management is all about dealing with situations that are often challenging and difficult – sadly that goes with the job.

This does not happen every day but having such skills are an essential part of the managerial toolkit.

Whatever the cause of the problem, the main aims when dealing with challenging conversations are to:

  • diffuse emotions
  • identify the problem
  • agree and implement solutions
  • take appropriate follow-up action


It is important to have clear objectives about what needs to be achieved during the conversation. The person leading the meeting needs to have a clear vision of the desired outcomes – the main focus and goals.

Studying the background to the problem helps us to ensure that we have as many facts as possible before we start the conversation. We can then think about possible solutions, so that we are ready to discuss different options. Things to consider before the meeting include, for example:

  • the background to the issue that is causing the problem
  • possible solutions to the problem
  • potential problems that may occur in the meeting, or in the future
  • follow-up actions that may be required
  • what to do if actions are unsuccessful

Whilst thinking about the background to the problem, potential solutions and objectives, wider issues may be highlighted.

Depending on the circumstances and objectives of the discussion, their approach could be, for example:

  • formal or informal
  • warm and friendly or cool and distant
  • apologetic or demanding
  • direct and firm or gentle and vague
  • to listen and ask a few questions
  • to take command, speak and ask lots of questions

A manager who is dealing with a complaining customer needs to diffuse the situation, make the conversation less challenging and maximise the chances of a successful outcome. They may concentrate on:

Much can be done to diffuse a situation by maintaining your cool and using a non-confrontational range of skills such as:

  • having an open and non-confrontational posture
  • being polite, courteous, patient, apologetic and confident – to inspire trust
  • listening more than you speak and using active listening skills
  • using a calm, polite, respectful but confident tone of voice
  • using open, closed and rhetorical questions – maybe with probing questions if more detail is required

On the other hand, there will inevitably be times when a more assertive approach will be necessary. You still need to be polite, but you need to focus on:

  • using dominant body language – such as strong eye contact
  • good speaking skills with a strong tone of voice
  • being firm and assertive
  • expressing their disappointment – that the first verbal warning did not seem to work
  • a range of question types – including leading and probing questions

Good Luck!

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