Can We Talk? (Simple Responses for Difficult Conversations)

“Excuse me, do you have a minute to talk?” 

You think “no” but say “yes”. You know by the look on their face that this conversation is going to take more than a minute. They walk in and close the door behind them and you clear your schedule.

As a leader, people are not just a part of our job…they are our job. And as you already know, where people are present so too are problems.

Knowing how to effectively respond to an employee or team member that raises a problem or concern is a critical skill for effective leadership. If not handled appropriately it can cause a significant amount of discomfort and distress to the person raising the concern, the leader and their team.

Whilst responding to a concern can be confronting, it does not need to be inherently stressful. 

Here is an easy to apply process and responses for leader when facing a difficult conversation: 

1. Acknowledge 

Acknowledgment is about recognition. Whether you personally believe the challenge or concern is real or not, this is real for them, take a moment to recognise that. As a leader it is more than just listening to a person speak, it is allowing that person to feel like their concern is being heard. This requires a high degree of empathy and deep listening.

This could sound something like

  • I’m so sorry you feel this way.
  • This sounds like a very difficult situation for you. 
  • I’m sorry that this has happened.

2. Appreciate 

Talking about challenging times isn’t easy and every persons experience is unique. When a person raises a concern, appreciate that they have decided to talk to you and not about you. How a leader responds to a person that speaks up on a team plays an important role in the development of the culture in that team. Teams that aren’t empowered to speak up will eventually break down. Take time to thank the person for raising the concern.

This could sound something like

  • Thank you for having this conversation with me, I’m glad you did.
  • I understand that this must have been a difficult conversation to have, thank you.
  • Thank you for bringing this straight to me.

3. Ask  

Good leaders know how to speak, great leaders know when not to. Lead with your ears by asking more than you tell. Learn the art of asking great questions over providing the best answers. This isn’t just about finding solutions but showing that you are there to support them towards a positive outcome. If the challenge is beyond your capability, identify pathways forward together to find alternative help.

This could sound something like

  • Tell me more about what you meant when you said_______
  • How can I best support you right now?
  • What are you finding most difficult about this situation?

4. Affirm 

There is a way forward if you are willing to do the work together. Let the person know that you are committed to helping them make progress and be there to support them moving forward. Be patient, workshop roadblocks together and continue to check in. 

This could sound something like

  • Thank you for having the conversation with me, I’m sure there is something we can do about this.
  • Let’s work together to find a solution moving forward.
  • We can certainly do something about this, what would you suggest we do next?  

5. Act 

Be sure to agree on next steps and outcomes from the conversation and prioritise these in your schedule. Words that lack followthrough and action rarely build a leaders credibility in handling difficult situations effectively. What happens after the conversation is just as significant as what happens in it. 

This could sound something like

  • Let’s talk about our next steps from here.
  • What should we expect from each other after this conversation?
  • How about we organise a time to meet later this week and discuss our next steps from here?

Difficult conversations may be challenging but they don’t need to be stressful. That isn’t to say this process is will be fast or easy. This will take time, intentionality and investment. But if handled correctly will contribute towards building a healthy team with open and empowered communication.