The Art of Facilitating Difficult Workplace Conversations #NatConvWeek

How many times this month can you, hand on heart, say you had a (meaningful) conversation with a colleague? It can be difficult to make time to sit down and discuss problems related to individual tasks or projects or talk about strategies to improve work productivity. It can be even more difficult to ask a colleague how they are feeling, especially if that colleague happens to be shy.


Developing conversational skills is important for any career but particularly those jobs that involve frontline customer service engagement. The ability to have a face-to-face conversation with clients is vital for performing well in marketing and customer service roles, but we use communication skills on a day-to-day basis in order to foster a positive and productive working environment.

Psychologists have studied the benefits of communicating regularly with colleagues and strangers on our emotional well-being. For example, a University of Michigan study, carried out in 2010 found that having short conversations with work colleagues, in a kitchen environment led to improved cognitive function. Talking through concerns can lead employees to be better problem solvers because they may feel more confident about collaborating with team members in order to reach practicable solutions to workplace issues[1].

Despite the obvious benefits to facilitating conversations in the workplace, employees and employers may find it difficult on occasions to sit down and talk.  Research conducted by the CMI in 2015 found that some British employees found it more difficult to discuss changes in pay and conditions with their line manager or HR manager than breaking up with their partner[2] and 2/3 of the employees who were surveyed had stated they felt anxious or stressed because they knew a difficult conversation between themselves and their line manager was going to take place. 11% also said they had nightmares or slept poorly because of their anxiety over facing a difficult conversation.[3] 57% of respondents said they would do pretty much anything to avoid having the conversation and worryingly, 52% said they were fine with putting up with a negative working atmosphere rather than have the conversation.[4] Managers do not always feel they have the training to facilitate such conversations: in fact 80% of those who responded to the 2015 CMI survey indicated they had had no formal training. 

There are a number of strategies that managers can use to facilitate difficult workplace conversations.  The Institute for Public Relations (IPR) has recommended that managers try and take a calm approach, with managers steering the conversation towards problem solving rather than blaming the issue on their employee: this includes valuing “spontaneity, honesty, genuineness and straightforwardness”, using non-judgemental language and being “open and tolerant”, taking on board ideas proposed by their junior colleague(s). [5]

Even when employees have mastered the art of navigating office conversations, they can find it difficult to communicate with new clients they meet, or give presentations to a large group of people. Equally, going “off piste” and engaging in unscripted conversations at conferences and exhibitions can be uncomfortable for some. Our conscious and unconscious biases will play a part in who we decide to speak to. Our life experiences (including experience of school and our family life) have an impact on our decision making, often without us realising.  We often judge based on first appearance: a manager may decide that a man not wearing a suit may be seen as a person of importance at a conference and therefore not see it as a priority to facilitate a conversation, even though that person may turn out to be a business owner who could have been a great collaborative partner.

 Some employees may have glossophobia, a fear of speaking in public, which means that they will avoid making conversation with strangers wherever possible. It has been estimated that up to 75% of people worldwide have some form of glossophobia[6]. A fear of being ridiculed (catagelophobia) can also impact a person's ability to strike up a conversation with strangers.

There are also employees who are scared to get into conversations with someone unfamiliar, because they don't know what to expect. We tend to rely on those we feel comfortable around because we assume that they will always be there to listen to what we have to say and not judge-us for saying it, at least not with malicious intent. We fear being open to critique, especially when in a public space, hence why we are more reluctant to begin any conversation with strangers.

However, it can sometimes feel more satisfying to listen to what someone who has never met us before. It can be beneficial to our emotional well-being to be confronted with new ideas and perspectives. It can help us to grow emotionally. Experimental Psychologists Nick Epley and Juliana Schroeder conducted research which concluded that beginning conversations on different modes of public transport: one study asked participants to either converse or avoid talking to a taxi driver and those who had avoided striking up a conversation enjoyed the journey less than those who had. [7]

Conversation skills need to honed and trained like any other skill: through self-awareness and practice. The art of conversation is an important social skill to master, both for work purposes and to have a more fulfilled social life.  It's important not just to face up to difficult conversations in the workplace or at conventions but to take the time to enjoy amazing, unexpected conversations with people that we meet, whether through undertaking a new activity, a chance meeting at school/university/church or even in a local shop.

This National Conversation Week, I shall certainly be trying to find joy in striking up a conversation, at work and leisure. Why not join me and find time to say “Hello, How are you?” to someone you would not normally think you would want to talk to. View every conversation that you have as a golden opportunity to share and to learn. After all, you never know where such a conversation might lead you in the future!


[1] University of Michigan Friends with cognitive benefits: Mental function improves after certain kinds of socialising.

[2]Chartered Management Institute Difficult Workplace Conversations: The Best Strategies for Managing Them.

[3]Chartered Management Institute Difficult Workplace Conversations: The Best Strategies for Managing Them.

[4]Chartered Management Institute Difficult Workplace Conversations: The Best Strategies for Managing Them.

[5]Institute of Public Relations (2017) Managing Difficult Workplace Conversations: Goals, Strategies and Outcomes

[6] Hamilton, C. (2008) Communicating for Results, a Guide for Business and the Professions (eighth edition). Belmont, CA: Thomson Wadsworth.

[7]Markman, A. Psychology Today Why You Should Talk to Strangers