December 16, 2019

How to handle difficult conversations

Plan ‘the talk’ carefully in advance, and focus on solutions instead of problems

As leaders, I am sure you’ve dealt with difficult conversations at some point, whether it’s telling an employee they aren’t getting a promotion or a salary raise, disciplining a poor performer or even having to fire someone. Having tough conversations is never easy but you need to get your message across strongly so that it is understood clearly and the appropriate action results.

These types of conversations aren’t ones you want to have on the spur of the moment. Therefore, planning “the talk” beforehand is vital because you never know how the other person might react. Relying on the facts and explaining your decision with clarity is necessary so that the situation does not blow out of proportion. You want to limit the damage if any.

These are all an inevitable part of management that we usually tend to avoid or put off until later, which is not the right way to go on about things. It only delays the actions need to be taken, for better or worse, in the case of the employee in question and the workforce as a whole. The key factor is to learn how to manage them in a way that results to an outcome that is most suitable, while keeping your relationships intact.

Solution-focused, not Problem-oriented 

Focusing on solutions rather than problems gives us a greater chance of succeeding when we are trying to implement lasting change. Many of us are culturally conditioned to lean toward the negative first rather than the positive; we spend hours in meetings thrashing out what went wrong in the workplace. Obviously, it is important for us to figure out the root cause of problems but we tend to obsess over them, which does us no good at all.

Imagine if you always kept your attention fixated on what’s wrong, on your failures: won’t those thoughts dominate your headspace? Your mental power is one of the strongest and useful powers you possess. It is responsible for your actions, influencing your behaviour and attitudes; as your thoughts go, so goes your life. When you choose to focus on where you’re making progress, those thoughts become prevalent, which fosters strength and growth as a result.

What You Give is What You Get 

Consider this: If you keep telling yourself that you are terrible at something, that will become a self-fulfilling prophecy. However, omitting the thoughts that only drag you down will allow you to move forward with sufficient practice. Solutions emerge from the potential you see for the future, not from the setbacks of the past. Even so, with reflective practice, thinking about the course of action you intend to take is closely linked to what you have learned from experience.

Of course, we all are hard-core thinkers whether it be about our work, family, friends or other aspects of life. We’re always anticipating something or the other. The only difference here is that we usually use “casual” thinking, whereas reflective practice requires a conscious effort. According to SkillsYouNeed, reflective practice is an actual skill that can be learned when dealing with real and complex situations.

It increases self-awareness, a key component of emotional intelligence, helping you to develop a better understanding of others, which is needed when handling difficult conversations as it encourages active engagement in work processes as well. Even though acquiring this skill is time-consuming initially, it will ultimately save you time and energy when dealing with individuals or groups of people.

Creating Lasting Behavioural Change 

Opportunities for new insights to flourish only come with more time for reflection and rational thinking to make a decision that is right. Therefore, if you are trying to make a change, you will most likely be more successful if you act on your own judgement first, rather than take into account other people’s opinions.

As a managing director in my company, I too have faced a lot of challenges in terms of making the right judgement, handling difficult conversations and approaching my workforce when there are conflicts or other difficult issues. I know how hard it is to deal with difficult conversations; hence, I have handpicked several programmes to be included in my newest blended learning model, YourNextU. They are essential tools that people can master, enabling them to sail through the difficulties that come their way. Learners will be able to steer people under the correct circumstances and identify how to limit any damages that may occur.

Rather than focusing on everything in a broad scope, try to achieve incremental changes, starting with having a conversation with your peers or developing a plan. With time, everything eventually falls into place, as long as you use your thoughts effectively.

Arinya Talerngsri is Chief Capability Officer and Managing Director at SEAC – Southeast Asia’s Lifelong Learning Center. She can be reached by email at or Explore and experience our lifelong learning ecosystem today at