How to have difficult conversations

Managers are expected to have difficult conversations in their role. Often, they don’t get the help or support to make these conversations effective so that they lead to positive outcomes.

Research shows that the number one thing that managers find difficult is dealing with conflict and the associated difficult conversations. So much is done by email these days.

While it might seem convenient, email lacks context, body language and tone of voice, and as a result, can often lead to unintended conflict. The fact that you opt to have a difficult conversation instead of sending an email is very good!

Support for difficult conversations

As an HR consultant, I am passionate about helping managers have more productive conversations. I know first-hand what the pitfalls are when these conversations are not done effectively.

At 22, I became a manager after less than 2 years in engineering roles. Responsible for seven men in their 50s, you can imagine that I learnt a lot about how not to have difficult conversations. I see a gap in building this capability in leaders across organisations.

Based on almost 20 years of experience in roles that required managing people, I developed a framework for managers that is structured but is flexible to retain the people aspect of difficult conversations.

Often, a fully scripted approach to having difficult conversation gives some comfort to managers but employees feel like just “part of a process”. Therefore, the SIREN® framework gives some structure to the conversation whilst taking an empathetic but courageous approach to getting the desired outcomes.

What is Siren®?

SIREN® is a tool that anyone can use - at work and at home - when they find themselves preparing for or in a difficult conversation. Not all difficult conversations are planned so it is important to have an understanding of how to manage it when you are taken by surprise. SIREN® stands for:


Let’s look at how to use the elements of SIREN® to have more productive conversations.

Prepare for the conversation

Sometimes, you must have a conversation around employee performance, redundancy or clashing of personalities in your team. Before you speak to the employee involved, you need to prepare. The Story and Impact elements of SIREN® help you do that.

Story refers to the context of the conversation. What is the problem and why am I talking to you about it? Preparing well in this area avoids waffling and beating about the bush. Don’t say to an employee, “I need to talk to you about the presentation you gave to the board.”

That will send all sorts of alarm bells through the employee’s head. Instead, say something like, “I’d like to talk to you about how you structured the recommendations slide in your presentation to the board.” That’s clear and leaves little room for ambiguity by giving context to the discussion.

Impact refers to how the topic affects the employee, team or organisation. Be as specific as possible and don’t give unrealistic expectations. If it is about redundancy, for instance, don’t say, “Everything should be fine,” or that, “There is nothing to worry about.” This gives the employee false hope that they might not, in fact, lose their jobs when in reality, there is a high chance that they will.

If you are giving difficult feedback be prepared to articulate the impact of behaviour or actions. Prepare in advance so that you are clear and unambiguous about this.

Stop talking and listen

If someone just receives a difficult message, they need time to process what they heard. That’s why the SIREN® framework allows for a pause after explaining the context and the likely impact on the employee. It is time to stop talking.

Most people are uncomfortable with silence and that makes the Reaction element of SIREN® harder for managers. Unfortunately, it is not an area that you can prepare for. Allow the employee to react to what has been said and don’t make any assumptions about how they will react or feel.

Difficult conversations require empathy. Put yourself in the other person's shoes. Start by listening and watch the language you use if you do speak. Avoid phrases like, “Why are you so upset?” Or, “I understand how you feel.” It is unlikely that you understand how the person feels and even if your intentions are good, assuming that you understand could exacerbate the situation. Instead, try something like, “I can see that this is upsetting you.” The Empathy and Reaction elements of SIREN® allow listening and feedback so that the person receiving the message has an opportunity to respond.

Next steps (or now what?)

You’ve delivered tough news to an employee. What happens now? Many difficult conversations end without an effective close. One reason is possibly because the manager can’t wait to end the conversation and the employee can’t wait to leave the manager’s office.

But every difficult conversation should ideally have a definite close. That closure could be as simple as agreeing what you are both going to do differently. Depending on the situation you may have more formal next steps. It could be that as manager, you present to the employee with a written letter outlining what has just been discussed in a redundancy conversation. If it is about the misconduct, you could provide a disciplinary process document showing the employee what to expect over the next weeks and months.

Like Story and Impact, this is a part of the SIREN® framework that you can prepare for. Plan your close and let the employee know that they can come back with questions when they have read through the document(s) you have provided.

4 quick tips for having difficult conversations

Here are some quick tips if you find yourself in a difficult conversation:

  • If the other person is shouting/raising their voice, talk in a softer voice than usual rather than raising your own voice. It’s difficult to keep shouting at someone who isn’t shouting back.
  • It’s OK to take a break if the conversation isn’t heading in the right direction. A difficult conversation could be a series of difficult conversations
  • If someone gets upset, allow them to be upset instead of trying to get rid of them or you trying to leave the room. Have some tissues handy and/or offer to get them a glass of water
  • Think about your location for a difficult conversation. It should ideally be at quieter times and the conversation shouldn’t happen in full view of colleagues e.g. if you have glass walls/door, have the person with their back towards the glass. Don’t, as I’ve been witness to, have a difficult conversation in the middle of Starbucks.

Difficult conversations are difficult for a reason. We just don’t enjoy having them but we need to have them in all areas of our life, whether at work or at home, with friends, colleagues or family members. Hopefully, you find the SIREN® framework useful in your conversations.

Be sure to let me know how you have applied it and what else you would do to add more courage to your difficult conversations.

Gillian Thomson, managing director, gt Limited

Gillian Thomson, managing director, gt Limited