We were recently asked, “What can a new manager do when they need to have a difficult conversation?”  As we thought about this, we were struck by how we’d all like to think that it’s just new managers who struggle with this, but in fact, people from seasoned CEOs to soccer coaches to spouses and kids all struggle with having difficult conversations and, as a result, often avoid the important conversations that can contribute to creating greater connection, development of new skills, and facilitation of movement toward a shared goal.

Difficult Conversation Framework

Here is an example of a framework that will help you have more effective “difficult” conversations.


  Ask Yourself: Make Notes/Write Script:
Prepare What, specifically, happened
convince me to have this
Every time we are in a staff
meeting, one of my direct
reports reacts to every
decision with fury and by
challenging my expertise and
authority. In the last staff
meeting, she got
loud, leaned forward with her
face all red and told me my
idea was stupid.
What are your expectations
for this “difficult
I would like to feel confident
that she understood my
expectations and was committed
to meeting them and she
would feel like her opinions
matter and that I will listen
to them if she can
contribute them in a
professional and collaborative
Why is it important to me
that we do things
We have staff meetings weekly
so that I can keep the team
apprised of top-level
decisions, get input when
there are things we can
influence, and so that we can
work together to figure
out ways to take action on
our goals. These meetings are
really important to
me because they are the only
time I have all of my team in
the same room.
What can I do to remind
myself to listen and remain
I will write notes on the top
of my pad reminding myself to
listen, if I find myself
getting shaken I will
excuse myself to run to the
bathroom, and I will respond
to insults with
“say more about
that?” so I give myself
space to listen without
Script How would I describe what I’m
concerned about –
specifically and objectively –
without blame or accusation?
In the past few months, each
time I have talked about a
decision or mandate from our
executive team, you
have reacted with anger and
insult. You get very red,
and agitated, and
you insult our bosses, the
company, and me – then you
lean back and cross your
arms saying you won’t do the
“stupid” work.
What are the consequences of
the problem behavior?
As a result, the conversation
stops, all creativity and
energy drops away, and now I
being told that team
members don’t want to come to
the meetings, we are not
working as effectively
as a team and you are not
meeting your expectations as a
member of the team.
What would you like to see
happen differently in the
future? What, specifically,
do we need to agree on
going forward?
It is very important that this
behavior change. I need you
to attend staff meetings
regularly, participate
respectfully in the
discussion of the work we are
assigned, and contribute to
figuring out how to get it
done. I also need you to work
collaboratively with
the rest of the team to get
the work done.

If you so strongly believe
our executive team is inept
and that all of the managers
are stupid then I
would encourage you to look
for work in another area of
company or in
another company. I want you
to know how much I value your
around strategy, be we have
reached a time where your
behavior in the staff
meetings must change if you
are going to remain in this

Follow-Up How do I need to follow up on
this conversation?
I need to assess her behavior
in the next staff meeting
and, if she can get it
together, I need to comment
that I’m pleased and continue
to observe in case this
behavior starts again.
If not, I’ll need to repeat
this conversation and discuss
it with my manager to
start to implement letting
her go.

Difficult conversations are just that, difficult.  But you can do them well and you can create success if you slow down and prepare yourself, commit to remaining open to the other person’s influence and perspective, and you look for a solution that is good for both of you.  Even if you are in the position of firing someone or setting an important limit with a child, you can do so with respect, integrity and compassion.