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Is that conversation too hot to handle?

Updated: Nov 27, 2023

It's so easy as a new leader to shy away from having that 'difficult' conversation. Most of us want to be liked and do not wish to upset anyone, and most of us do not like confrontation.

But, if planned right, and with diplomacy and sensitivity that 'difficult' conversation does not have to upset anyone or lead to confrontation.

Firstly, it's so important not to ignore having to hold that conversation.

If the conversation is about performance, then consider the impact of not holding that conversation. Will it be the pupils that will suffer? If the conversation is about professional behaviour or conduct within the team, then again, consider the impact of not holding that conversation. How will team members feel? How will this impact on the school?

It really is important to consider the impact of not holding that conversation. Thinking about and noting down the possible impact will give you the courage to approach the situation confidently.



But, where to start? Well, have you heard the phrase 'Failing to plan, plan to fail'?

Planning in advance will help you feel in control and more confident.

Make sure you have all the relevant notes and any facts to hand.


Take time to reflect on past conversations you have had. How have these conversations panned out for you?

Have you in the past avoided difficult conversations? This was easier, but maybe this resulted in no one getting what they wanted.

Have you been accommodating within previous conversations? This was probably agreeable to the other person but did it give you the results you wanted?

Have you been collaborative in your approach? Although hard work, being open minded and compromising enables everyone to get what they want.

Have you been dominant in previous conversations? This probably got what you wanted, but at what cost and what was the impact on others?

Consider the approach that you want to take, depending on the issue at hand. Approaches will differ depending on the context, seriousness of the issue and who the other person is.


Think about how you feel about the conversation and how you want to feel going into it.

Think about what will get you in the best frame of mind for holding the conversation. And, equally, what might derail you during the conversation? What could you do to help you recover from this?

Think about what you want from the conversation and how you will know it has been successful. How do you want to feel when the conversation is over?


Consider any assumptions you may be making about the other person and their performance or behaviour. Put aside any judgements and any 'bias' that may influence what you think, feel and say. And consider what the other person's relationship is with 'previous conversations' that may impact on this one.


Depending on the conversation I think it's always best to choose somewhere neutral. Make sure it's a confidential space too. If there's not a neutral space and you have to hold the conversation in your office, then think about how this may make the other person feel. How will you address this?

Find a time that's convenient to both of you and when you are not likely to be interrupted. Try not to hold the conversation in the lunch hour (everyone needs this break) or before lessons are about to start (stressful and time-limiting), or before home time (again, could be time-limiting and individuals may have home responsibilities to attend to).

Provide sufficient time for the conversation so that all parties feel valued and heard.



Be honest and open about the issues, and the impact of the underperformance or behaviours or conduct. You've got this far, so don't shy away from addressing the issues.


Employ active listening. Be responsive to what the other person has to say. Rephrase and summarise some of their points to show that you have listened to them and that they are valued.

Look for non-verbal cues. How is the individual standing/sitting and what are their facial expressions telling you?


Show understanding of the other person's perspective. Be compassionate and non-judgemental.

Position your own understanding of the situation too. Keep the language you use neutral and non-emotional.


Provide examples of the impact of the underperformance or behaviour.

Tie your comments to what matters in your school, to the school's values and to what you all believe in.

Be clear about what needs to improve and by when.

If necessary, explain what might/will happen if improvements are not seen.


Be observant of yourself during the conversation. It may be that you notice that your energy levels drop or you feel stressed.

Talk slowly and calmly. This will help you find the right words and support the other person in taking these in.

Take deep breaths.

Notice the emotions of the other person and acknowledge these.


If the other person becomes challenging, then pause, listen and ask questions for clarity.

Instead of reacting, respond appropriately. In Eric Pliner's article in Forbes (Holding Difficult Conversations: Tips for Leaders 10.06.20) he quotes a 'clever' leader who once noted that 'when we have a reaction to a medication, our bodies are rejecting it, but that when we respond to a medication, our bodies are healing or soothed by the treatment and that this is the same of words.'

Phrases such as 'I am noticing, I am observing, I am seeing' phrases may help and are less confrontational than 'you did this' etc.

And, instead of saying 'yes but' try saying 'yes, and'. Again, this is less confrontational.


Share what good performance or behaviour looks like. Be constructive and offer solutions and alternatives if necessary.

Temper tough issues by reinforcing the positives. Acknowledge achievements and use praise too within the conversation.

Explore any additional support that may be needed.

Frame any request in positive terms and agree how and when the issue/conversation will be revisited.

Be clear about the next steps and what you'd like to see and when.



If you have taken notes (or had a minute taker if the conversation was more formal), then share these with the person you have spoken with as a record of the conversation. This will serve as a reminder to the other person that the conversation was of value to and to hold them accountable for any improvement in their performance or professional behaviours that need to be made. It will also serve as a reminder to you if you have offered to provide support to the individual.

I would advise anyone to take notes and share these as a follow up, even if the 'difficult conversation' was less formal. Everyone is then clear as to future expectations etc.


Following the conversation, take time for reflection and review.

How did you feel about the conversation? How did you manage it? What worked and what didn't? Did you get the outcome you wanted? What would have made it better? How would you approach it next time? What support, if any, do you need?

Likewise, reflect on the conversation from the other person's perspective. How do they feel? Is there any further support you can offer them now you have had time to think about the conversation and heard their side?


Remember, difficult conversations are not always easy. They take diplomacy and sensitivity and you may not get it right every time. However, if you keep the end aim in mind, then this will make it easier for you.

As a leader, having to hold difficult conversations may not always make you the most popular person in the room, but if you are seen to be fair minded, open, honest and willing to listen then you are doing your job well.

And, practice really does make perfect! The more you do, the easier it will get and that 'difficult conversation' will never again be too hot to handle!

A simple conversation framework:

  • Describe in neutral language

  • Explain effect of behaviour or impact of performance

  • Show understanding

  • Communicate your request

I hope this helps.

Please feel free to comment with your own thoughts and advice for holding difficult conversations, or drop me a line if you wish to discuss further.


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