How to Handle Confrontation and Difficult Conversations

What gets talked about in an organization and how it gets talked about determines what will happen. Or won’t.

-Susan Scott, Founder of Fierce, Inc.


Ms. Scott’s latest book Fierce Conversations provides guidance on having productive, respectful, and results-driven conversations, both at work and at home.

Unfortunately, not all conversations are fun, even if they produce results.

The hardest conversations, of course, are the difficult, awkward, uncomfortable, and confrontational ones. Whether you need to talk to an employee about a major project failure or a simple misunderstanding, here’s how to approach the situation:

Don’t avoid it

It is our natural inclination to avoid unpleasantness, but the longer you avoid the conversation, the worse the situation will become. You may end up building a company culture based on avoidance, mediocrity, and low morale.

Set up a meeting

Ask to have a conversation with the person in private to discuss the issue. You will not only show you care, but you will also show that you don’t shy away from a challenge or difficult situation.


Even if you are initiating the conversation, breathe deeply to help you stay calm and focused. Resist the temptation to become defensive, or, worse, attack the other person’s character or judgment if he or she reacts badly.

Add in processing time

A difficult conversation can take time to process. Adjourn the meeting to allow the person to think through what was said. Make it clear that your door is open and questions are more than welcome in order to ensure you are both on the same page.

Take ownership

The only way to resolve a conflict is for both parties to take ownership of their contribution. Be candid about your own role, what you learned, and how you will approach things differently moving forward.

In my next blog post on conversations, we’ll look at a few tips to ensure your communication is as effective as it can be.

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