Difficult Conversations for Leaders

This intermediate-level program presents a clear framework to guide leaders through difficult conversations about workplace conflict and performance issues. It is unique in that each Snippet builds upon the last, showcasing the importance of every step of the process, from articulating boundaries and expectations all the way to co-creating an action plan. This program was co-created with Brian McDougall who successfully implemented this framework as Senior Director of Human Resources at Mazda Canada Inc.

TOPIC: Leadership
LEVEL: Intermediate
Core Skills & Behaviours​
  1. Prepare and self-reflect: By reflecting on the goals of a conversation, leaders can identify and process any strong emotions in order to approach the conversation calmly and with intention. Considering the timing, the setting, and the tone of the conversation is also key to success.
  2. Objectively describe the situation: To begin any difficult conversation, a leader must clearly state the situation, the specific actions or behaviours, and the impacts on the workplace. This should be done without blame.
  3. Listen and respond: In difficult conversations, leaders can listen with an open mind and explore the other person’s perspective. When a disagreement arises, leaders should determine whether its basis is emotional (solved with empathy) or informational (solved with facts).
  4. Agree on a way forward: Leaders should build solutions or next steps based on what the conversation has revealed. Defining Objectives and Key Results (OKR) or agile workplans can help address performance issues without fear or pressure.
  5. Restore relationships: By asking thoughtful questions, leaders can help restore relationships between people who have caused harm and those who have been harmed.
Snippet Title Topic Covered


He’s Barely Here

Demonstrates that setting clear expectations and boundaries at work can give us the courage to address small issues before they grow or cause resentment.


Boiling Over

Encourages learners to make an emotional plan before a difficult conversation. Considering our emotional responses, our personal “buttons,” and our expectations can help frame a healthier conversation.


Carlee’s Complaint

Shows that difficult conversations require preparation and establishing facts. Facts are not always presented, but they can guide and clarify the conversation and increase the speaker’s confidence.


Please Handle This

Emphasizes the importance of setting the tone for difficult conversations. This includes considering the person above the problem and choosing a helpful time, venue, format, and level of formality.


He Lost the Client

Illustrates the importance of clearly stating the situation, the behaviour, and its impacts. This foundation brings clarity to the conversation and allows the person to respond.


The Accusation

Prompts learners to notice whether challenges are informational or emotional during a difficult conversation. Shows that emotional challenges should be met with empathy rather than with fact-based answers.


The Impatient Administrator

Demonstrates the importance of empathic listening during a difficult conversation, once the behaviour and its impacts are established.


I’ll Do Better

Emphasizes the solution-building role of a difficult conversation. Provides strategies and verbal cues to help the learner set goals collaboratively and make a follow-up plan.


Managing the Fallout

Asks leaders to view difficult conversations in a broader relational context and to focus on restoration, repair, and reintegration as the conversation comes to a close.


What’s Next?

Points to the importance of ending every difficult conversation by creating an action plan and agreeing to the way forward. Solutions and positive feelings do not mark the end of the conversation.

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