The Top 6 Mistakes Managers Make When Having Difficult Conversations

These mistakes are common, but they can turn a difficult conversation from uncomfortable to disastrous.

The Top 6 Mistakes Managers Make When Having Difficult Conversations
[Photo: Flickr user Mark Spearman]

If you’re a manager, you’re no doubt more than familiar with the sweaty palms and butterflies that come with having to deliver bad news. From a poor performance review to firing an employee, the most stressful conversations are those where you’re sure tears or anger will ensue.


Marcia Reynolds, corporate trainer and author of The Discomfort Zone: How Leaders Turn Difficult Conversations into Breakthroughs says the stress and anxiety leading up to difficult topics of conversation can be overwhelming. While no one likes to be the bearer of bad news, avoiding these top six conversation pitfalls can prevent difficult conversations from turning toxic.

The top six mistakes managers make when having difficult conversations:

1. Approaching the conversation from a negative place

Avoid going into the conversation thinking that it’s going to be difficult. Reynolds recommends preparing for the conversation by setting an emotional intention for the discussion. Ask what you want the person to feel. If you’re delivering a poor performance review, but you still want to retain the employee, you may want them to leave the conversation feeling hopeful. Setting an emotional intention will help to shape your tone of voice when you deliver the message.

2. Avoiding the conversation

“The longer you wait, the worse [the problem] is going to get,” says Reynolds. While it’s common for managers to try to avoid having difficult conversations by trying to justify someone’s behavior, Reynolds says the most respectful thing to do is to confront the situation head-on and avoid wasting time.

3. Responding with the same emotion

No one likes to receive bad news, but managers can make the situation worse by mimicking employees’ emotions. Accept that they might get angry, or they might cry, but Reynolds warns to avoid getting triggered by these emotions, sticking instead to the emotional intention that you set before the meeting.

4. Delivering bad news by email

Sometimes a situation can be so uncomfortable, managers may want to retreat behind the safety of their computer screen and send out an email rather than confronting the individual face-to-face. This has the potential to negatively affect the entire culture of the organization. “The employee loses respect for the leader,” says Reynolds. “[Sending out an email] is an act of cowardice and makes the leader look weak in the eyes of their employees.”


5. Trying to fill in the silence

A lull in the conversation can cause uncomfortable managers to want to continue talking to fill in the silence; but, Reynolds says, this silence is often necessary to allow individuals to process the information they’ve been told. “When you tell someone something they didn’t know, there’s always this pause [before] the emotional reaction,” she says. Avoid filling in this silence with excuses or words to try to “fix” the situation. “Allow their brain to make sense of what you’ve just told them. Take a breath, let them process, and then let them talk,” says Reynolds.

6. Rushing to get it over with

You’ve just delivered your news and the conversation you’ve been dreading perhaps for weeks is finally over. You breathe a sigh of relief and say, “Okay, we’re good now, thank you” and let the person walk out your office door. But, how can you be sure, in your haste to have the difficult conversation be over with, the message you wanted to convey has been received? No matter how difficult or uncomfortable the topic of conversation makes you feel, avoid rushing the conversation and allow the receiver of the information to respond, ask questions and get clarification before moving on.


About the author

Lisa Evans is a freelance writer from Toronto who covers topics related to mental and physical health. She strives to help readers make small changes to their daily habits that have a profound and lasting impact on their productivity and overall job satisfaction.