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Thought Leadership


Tough Conversations - practice makes perfect

A key skill for leaders and managers is handling tough conversations well. This might include telling a peer (or boss) that something they are doing is not helpful, through to addressing performance issues with a supplier.  Often these conversations are ducked because individuals see them as too difficult, and justify their failure to address them by highlighting the conflict and potential disruption they might cause. At other times these conversations are simply handled badly, resulting in the other party taking offense and not addressing the behaviour change required.

What then are the key elements to managing difficult conversations well? First, although individuals who are good here may feel a level of emotion around the issue, they understand the need to walk a line between letting their emotions rip and holding back on how they feel. Second, they study closely how the other party is managing the conversation, and in particular any ploys they might be using to avoid engaging with the issue (eg  saying very little, blaming others or becoming aggressive). Third, if their initial approach is not working they change tack and try an alternative.  In very skilled individuals this seems to come naturally, but this fluency is usually at least partially acquired through lots of practice. Good performers are effective because they have thought through the available options and are clear about where they are headed in the conversation, enabling them to modify their approach in order to achieve their objectives. Techniques may range from acknowledging that they themselves may have said something unhelpful in the conversation, to ensuring that such a mistake does not affect their external poise, even though internally it may have rocked them.

What role does Emotional Intelligence play here? This concept is firmly rooted in the minds of many HR Practitioners and Psychologists as a key component of leadership. According to Goleman, the triad of components which underpin emotional intelligence are self awareness (the ability to understand one’s own emotions as well as strengths, limitations and motives), self management (the ability to keep disruptive emotions and impulses under control) and empathy (understanding other people and seeing things from their perspective). These three elements enable individuals to manage and navigate the complexities of relationships, and should therefore impact directly on their ability to handle difficult conversations.

Another central point which flows from Goleman’s work is that some individuals are simply much more skilled than others at managing their relationships. Like most skills this will be a combination of underlying capability and practice. However, despite this fundamental observation, most practical activity seems to focus on the measurement of emotional intelligence, and the personality preferences which underpin it, rather than developing the ability to deliver tangible outputs eg effective conversations. This is perhaps not too surprising as the outputs  are  harder  to measure than the inputs. Nevertheless, we feel more emphasis should be put on teaching managers the fundamentals of conversational dexterity, supplemented by lots of opportunities for skill practice. This approach works well in negotiation training but appears to be less frequently applied to the domain of general management conversations.

Of course, to do this well requires practise and a degree of experimentation. For many people it is simpler to fall back on previous habits such as avoidance. To be clear here, we are not necessarily talking about a failure to be assertive. Rather, we are referring to the raw skill of being able to navigate a tricky situation and get your point across constructively such that the other person (and maybe also yourself) behave differently in future.

In short, as talent specialists we may be more effective at growing emotional intelligence in our leaders if we identify the skills required to deliver its outputs and actively train these, rather than telling potential leaders how much of it they have, and then leaving them get on with it. Skill practice still has a key role to play in talent development.

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