The Difficult but Necessary Reality of Critical Conversations in the Workplace

Interpersonal and Communication Skills - © Performance Management Consultants

In most workplaces, day-to-day communications are generally positive and collaborative. When speaking to a colleague or a superior, most of what we say at work is on the neutral-to-nice spectrum. But sometimes, a difficult subject needs to be addressed, and a critical conversation needs to be had.

It could be as (relatively) mundane as a change in project direction, or it could be as serious as a demotion or termination. Regardless, critical conversations are almost certainly going to be emotionally charged, and require delicate handling. Everything from the language used to location these conversations take place in can impact their outcome.

Luckily, there are tactics you can follow to help ensure these conversations are successful and productive. Here’s what you need to know:

Plan your Conversation in Advance

When it comes to delicate communications, winging it is definitely not a best practice. Having a clear idea of what you want to say and how it will be received will allow you to steer and navigate through a difficult conversation that is probably going to be emotionally charged.

Thoroughly preparing to have a critical conversation will allow you to be efficient and concise with what you have to say. Don’t over-explain, and leave plenty of time to listen to the person you’re talking with. Active listening will demonstrate empathy and will ensure that despite the difficult nature of the subject at hand you don’t come across as hostile.

Proper preparation also allows you to come with a clear list of action items and expectations you expect to result from the conversation. If the conversation deals with performance improvement or behavioral change, it’s a good idea to let the person you’re talking with suggest how they might change, and how that can be measured. It’s much harder for people to disagree with their own ideas.

Choose the Right Location

This part of having a critical conversation might be a little less obvious, but it’s no less important. Where you have a difficult conversation can dramatically impact the outcome, or even just heighten the emotions or cause embarrassment. To ensure things go smoothly, you’ll want to consider a neutral location, or even the workspace of the person you need to talk with.

It might be tempting to have critical conversations in your office, where you feel most comfortable and the power dynamic is clearly defined. But this can lead to a tricky end to the conversation, and prolonging any emotional response that might happen. If you deliver some bad news in a neutral location, you’re free to leave the conversation when necessary, and give the person receiving the news some privacy to gain their composure. You’re able to say, “I know this is upsetting. I’m going to leave so you can process this news. My door is always open, come and see me if you would like to continue the conversation.”

With remote work increasingly common, having critical conversations on neutral platforms (like Zoom) is far easier. However, even though video calls offer a neutral location, they can lack the necessary connection people have when truly face-to-face. Body language and eye contact are inherently different on these platforms and can actually make critical conversations more awkward. If the conversation you’re having might embarrass the person, doing it over the phone might actually be a preferable solution than booking a video call.

Time the Conversation Appropriately

With the hustle and bustle of a workplace, timing a critical conversation perfectly might be difficult. But there are definitely some do’s and don’ts you’ll want to consider to ensure the conversation is productive, and negative feelings are minimized.

While it might be tempting to get the critical conversation over with as soon as possible, springing bad news or a difficult talk on someone out of the blue can be quite shocking. Actually booking some time with someone and giving them the heads up that a conversation is on its way will help people emotionally prepare, and may mitigate negative reactions.

On the other hand, you don’t want to put off a difficult talk for too long. It’s better to deal with a critical conversation as early as is reasonable without rushing it. An example of what not to do would be scheduling a Monday conversation on a Friday. This could lead to a ruined weekend and excess worry, which of course could contribute to an emotional reaction during the critical conversation.


At some point, a difficult conversation is going to be inevitable in the workplace. While no one looks forward to them, critical conversations can ultimately encourage growth, develop employees and ultimately solve small problems before they become big problems. Learning how to have them effectively will make them less intimidating, and the outcomes more positive.

Want to learn more about how you can have more effective critical conversations? Register for the PMC workshop, Critical Conversations or Active Listening Skills. You’ll have the opportunity to practice having difficult conversations, and develop skills to make them easier when they happen in the workplace.

The sessions can be delivered live online or onsite for groups of five or more people at a time of your choosing. Register today online or call us at 613-234-2020 and we’ll do the rest.

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