Tips for Managing Difficult Conversations at Work

Navigating Workplace Discussions with Ease


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More Than Just A Course Of Lectures

What gets in the way of developing and holding on to new communication skills are old habits of thinking and speaking. Even if the advice is very good the reason why it rarely sticks are the mental habits people inevitably revert to, especially under pressure.

Unlearning those old habits and internalising a more effective and lasting approach to communication needs more than a short course of lectures on how to do it.

What Makes This Training Stand Out?

What makes this training stand out is the exceptional support through one-to-one coaching sessions and continuous feedback. Changing behaviour is not an easy task as old habits are hard to break.

With a 40-year track record we can help you cultivate practical skills, and build your confidence to so you can successfully navigate real-world challenges, ensuring lasting behavioural improvements.


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"What I love about this course is that I didn't just learn about the topic, this course is about ME.  I'm confident I can reliably use my new skills, even when under pressure".

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Course Summary

Training Objectives

This course is designed to help you handle difficult conversations at work when someone is behaving defensively or aggressively. You'll learn how to acknowledge their emotions, and allowing them to express their feelings. You'll be able to reassure them that you take their concerns seriously, and express your commitment to finding a solution that works for both of you. You'll learn how to communicate your your commitments so you can provide updates as needed to repair damaged relationships and build trust.

Develop Your Emotional Intelligence

You will learn a set of powerful emotional intelligence communication techniques so that you can manage difficult conversations, handle challenging situations, build relationships and set firm boundaries.

Transferable Skills

The goal of this training is to equip you with the tools they need to build strong, lasting relationships in your professional life, although because these skills are so transferable many clients report vast improvements in their personal relationships as well.

Develop Skills

This is a skills development rather than just a theoretical programme, so the emphasis throughout will be on you taking turn after turn, practising your skills, while receiving feedback and coaching about your effect on others.

Repeated Practice and Feedback

In your coaching sessions you will be helped to practise dealing with the kinds of situation you find challenging, again and again, until you are confident you can do it successfully.

Video Analysis

We'll combine practical, hands-on experience with video replay and analysis and discussion of the principles involved to help you gain both skills and understanding. Special attention is paid to your individual training needs, so you can practise your skills in real-life situations that you have to handle at work.

Sustained Change

That's why as well as your place in a small group, this training includes a generous amount of private and confidential one-to-one coaching sessions online, spread over several months, ensuring an exceptional level of support. This will ensure the changes you make are sustained over a longer period of time and any obstacles are overcome. Choose between online training available worldwide, or in-person face-to-face courses in the UK.

Course Dates and Price

For a list of upcoming course dates (for online coaching and face-to-face training), the locations of the next 3-day public courses in the UK and pricing Click here.

Free Initial Session

This initial coaching session serves as an introduction to the "Skills with People" course, allowing you to understand the course's relevance and effectiveness for your specific needs before committing to it.

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He's now far more aware of his impact on others

Is This Difficult Conversation Training Right For You?

Might your need to be more successful at managing difficult conversations at work be met by this London UK based management training course called Skills with People?

Yes, if any of the following are true for you

  • You seem to get into lots of conflicts, disagreements and difficult conversations at work.
  • Your confidence at managing difficult conversations at work gets in the way of you being successful.
  • You want to develop your skills at dealing with difficult conversations at work so that others to treat you with more respect, understanding and cooperation. But, it's difficult because you don't know how to respond when other people “throw their toys out of the pram”. You certainly don't want to handle the difficult conversations clumsily if it ends up making matters worse. You want to avoid insulting other people, or hurting their feelings in case it damages your relationships.
  • Sometimes disagreements about how to achieve your goals can lead to difficult conversations at work, even though that's not what you want.If you are under pressure to deliver results at work, but when other people dig in their heels and resist you because they don't agree with everything you're saying it's hard managing difficult conversations without them turning aggressive. You may feel worried that if you don't push hard enough you may jeopardise your reputation for being able to get your job done, but if you push the other person too hard you might damage your relationship, causing a rift that may be difficult to repair.
  • You're in a position to help deal with difficult conversations at work between other people, but you're not confident you know a professional way to calm them down so that can become more reasonable once they've become upset, angry or defensive.

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People who feel understood are more receptive

Why Do People Avoid Difficult Conversations?

A number of physiological changes occur in the body occur when we are under pressure in a conflict or stressful situations that make managing difficult conversations at work challenging. It's part of our body's “fight, flight or freeze” response. This physical and measurable change can have a dramatic effect on people's ability to think straight, process data, and even distort feelings. Once the other person has become triggered into a defensive posture it makes it very difficult for you to successfully connect because of their highly stress and agitated state of mind.

You probably know from your own experience of managing difficult conversations at work that dealing with an irrational person who is getting upset or angry can be a minefield. This is why lots of people prefer to avoid the difficult conversations at work altogether.

However, with some understanding, training and practice it is possible to develop your skills and to feel much more confident about managing difficult conversations more successfully.

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Stand up for your ideas and also respect theirs

What To Be Aware Of When Managing Difficult Conversations At Work

Communicating with Confidence

When you're managing difficult conversations at work it is helpful to be aware of what is likely to be getting in the way, and why the other person might find it harder to behave reasonably, calmly and rationally. When someone's emotions are triggered into becoming defensive or resistant three things change, their thinking, their feelings, and their ability to connect with other people. Here's more detail;-

  • Thinking - The way people process information becomes clouded when they are upset.Their thinking can become confused. They may behave defensively. They can forget what you share in common. They can become stuck in fruitless arguments. Their minds play tricks on them. Their perception of you may become distorted. They may see you as their enemy, attacking you, painting you with the very worst characteristics. The gulf between you may widen to the point where it becomes unbridgeable. In this frame of mind it is not possible to come together to rationally deal with a problem or a complaint at work. While managing difficult conversations with someone in a state of mind like this you have to be very patient in order to calm them down. If you rush prematurely to try to convince them, or “win the other person round” with a reasoned or logical argument you are likely to be unsuccessful while the other person is still in an agitated state of mind.
  • Feelings - The way they feeling can escalate and become extreme.They may have mixed emotions. Fear, anger, pain, are common, as well as resentment and vulnerability. They are likely to feel misunderstood, judged and attacked. Their brain can become flooded with hormones and chemicals that put them into a heightened state of alertness towards a perceived threat. In this state it's no use telling them to “calm down”. They can't, not just like that. Their emotional state makes managing difficult conversations impossible if you try to rush them.
  • Connecting with other people - They are likely to respond defensively.Whilst in an agitated state of mind, or defensive mood they are unlikely to have the capacity to properly listen to your point of view. The way they may speak to you may be hostile and aggressive. If they aren't confident enough to admit openly how unhappy they are then as their hostility is likely to leak more covertly in the form of sarcasm or passive-aggressive behaviour. While in this state of mind they are can to very easily both feel misunderstood, and to misunderstand you. They too may prefer to avoid dealing with difficult conversations because it's so stressful for them. Again, this kind of defensiveness makes handling difficult behaviour extremely challenging.

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Tips For Handling Difficult Conversation

3 tips for how to have difficult conversations at work once the other person has become triggered into behaving defensively or aggressively.

You can learn to be more confident managing difficult conversations by not rushing, and going gradually step by step. It's too ambitious expecting people to be able to calm down and speak rationally if they are still feeling agitated. They can't connect with you when they are still in this frame of mind. It's premature at this stage, and won't work. Here's an alternative approach;-

  • Step 1. The way to handle difficult conversations like this is first, for you to demonstrate your willingness to connect with them with some empathy, by acknowledging the seriousness of what has happened, and its impact on them. You may have to guess, but it's probably an educated guess based on what they'll have told you already. This will encourage them to let off some steam. Once they've had a chance to let off steam they'll be able to calm down. The more steam you allow them to let off, the more rational they're going to end up becoming, and the more likely they'll be able to reached by reason and logic. This can be difficult for you, because in order to successfully manage difficult conversations you'll need to be generously spirited enough to allow them to voice their unhappiness, and give you “what for”. The most helpful thing you can do is to reflect back how urgent the issue is, and to acknowledge its effect on the other person. When (and only when) people feel better understood, respected and appreciated, they are more likely feel safer. Once the other person has had the opportunity to get it off their chest, has expressed their negative feelings, has begun to feel taken seriously, and feels treated respectfully they'll be ready for step 2 …
  • Step 2. You next need to do is to reassure them that you're taking them seriously, are that you're invested in resolving the disagreement, wanting to do your best to help, and motivated to do everything you can to sort out their problem. You can do this by expressing firmly and clearly how youfeel about it, e.g. “I'm disappointed you've had a bad experience”, “I feel confident there's a way to sort this out”, or “I'd really like to find a way to get this resolved satisfactorily and win your confidence back”. By saying these kinds of things you demonstrate that it matters to you to get the bottom of the issue, resolve the disagreement, or handle their complaint successfully.
  • Step 3. It can then very helpful to say what you intend to do about it, e.g. “I'm determined to do my best to sort this out for you by doing such-and-such”, or “I'd love us to be able to find a compromise we can both be happy to agree to, how about so-and-so”, “I'm keen to accommodate your request as soon as I can reasonably fit it into my existing workload, this is when I can commit to having done it”. Done well, this will reassure the other person that they matter to you, and that you are motivated to help or support them.

When managing a difficult conversation you then earn people's trust by doing exactly what you've told them you're going to do. If you've bought yourself some time by saying you'll get back to them within a deadline you need to get back to them when you've said. If you can't meet the deadline, then getting back to them with an update will be better than leaving them in the dark.

Done well, with a bit of skill, managing difficult conversations in this way can not only repair a damaged relationship, but you'll have an opportunity to earn even more of the other person's confidence than if they'd never had the problem in the first place.

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Now by involving people he takes them with him

A Typical Example - Managing Difficult Conversations

A typical example of how managing difficult conversations can make a huge difference to your success.

This is a typical example of how managing difficult conversations at work with more confidence can help you gain people's co-operation and win their confidence when they are resisting or objecting. By following the tips above you too can be more skilled at calming people down when they are aggressive or complaining. Over the years thousands of participants have attended our “Skills with People” training course because they wanting to develop their confidence at managing difficult conversations more successfully.

Does this ring any bells for you or someone you know?

The problem - A manager who reacted defensively at work when other people complained

Distribution manager under fire from all sides at work. It wasn't his fault - it went with the job. Anyone else in that job would have had similar pressure. He took the brunt of complaints from customers about late deliveries. Sales people blamed him when customers were unhappy. Production people blamed him when he told them they would have to alter their production schedules because of last minute changes demanded by customers. Unfortunately, some of these difficult conversations became heated and there were a few complaints that he himself was difficult, defensive and annoying to deal with. He was upset and confused by this because although he had to put up with a lot of abuse from other people he always did his best to respond to complaints and other difficult conversations in a calm, reasonable, practical and helpful manner.

The diagnosis - why was his approach to managing difficult conversations at work unsuccessful?

His method of handling a complaint was to try to get straight down to the facts so that with the minimum of delay he could sort the problem out. He would urge the complainer to calm down and to stick to the facts. He tried to take no notice of the complainer's feelings because he believed they were a waste of time and would only make matters worse. Unfortunately, the effect this approach had was sometimes the opposite of the one he intended. During difficult conversations he meant to give satisfaction to the people who complained by being practical, helpful and efficient, but the effect was to wind them up - and he didn't understand what was happening.

What mental obstacle to change where getting in the way of being successful at dealing with difficult conversations?

He grew up in a family who never talked about feelings. The underlying belief was that feelings were uncomfortable, dangerous things, better suppressed or ignored, and that expressing or talking about them only made them worse when having difficult conversations. The fear of allowing people to express feelings would be a challenging obstacle to overcome. It is not easy to turn and face something you have always previously run away from, particularly when you are not even aware that you are afraid of it.

The remedy - what he needed to learn in order to be more successful at managing difficult conversations.

First, he needed to be helped to be aware of his fear of feelings. His underlying assumption that allowing people to express feelings is dangerous because it makes the feelings stronger needed to be challenged and replaced with the opposite idea, namely, that the safest and fastest way to calm people down while managing difficult conversations is to encourage them to let off steam. His initial reaction to this idea was one of amazement and disbelief. But in the safety and privacy of a one-to-one session, and subsequent practice in a small group he was encouraged to try responding to people as though it was true. When someone complained, before trying to sort out the problem, he had to learn to slow down and respond with empathy instead of trying to ignore their feelings. Difficult though this was initially for him, he tried it and the immediate effect was dramatic. Instead of winding people up, his empathy seemed to calm them down, and to do it very quickly. Admittedly in the process of letting off steam people were sometimes initially aggressive, but the aggression soon blew over. By using empathy to calm them down, instead of having difficult conversations, he was able to have much calmer conversations with people and therefore to be quicker to give them satisfaction by sorting out the problems they were complaining about. There were no more complaints at work that he was a difficult person to deal with. Some time later he said that learning to show empathy and not be afraid to let people express feelings had helped a great deal not only at work but also while managing difficult conversations at home as well.

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Assertiveness, Listening Skills & Emotional Intelligence Training

Further Reading

You might also find our pages on influence and persuasion and emotional intelligence relevant and helpful.

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