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Help! I need to have a difficult conversation and I’m worried about a bad reaction.

blank faced mannequin

As we look back at 2020, we have had to handle some tough situations over the last year. A pandemic will do that to you. No doubt lots of managers in charities and not-for-profit organisations have had to have some tricky conversations in recent months, and for some managers there are more to come. Getting prepared is vital.

But no matter how well you prepare for challenging conversations, the other person involved is bound to react in some way. So: what do you do when the other person reacts badly?

Towards the latter part of last year, here at =mc we found ourselves delivering more and more Handling Difficult Conversations training programmes. We helped participants tool up and get prepared to hold conversations on a range of topics, building their confidence and assertiveness skills. We also asked them what kinds of reactions they commonly experience from these conversations, and their top tips for handling those reactions. This is what they told us:

Shock, silence and disbelief

Think Macaulay Culkin circa 1990. Hands on face. Astonishment. Open mouthed. But probably no noise coming out. Whatever you have said to this person, it is news to them and they were not expecting it. So, what do you do?

First up – do nothing. This person is having a reaction and needs time to process your message. Wait it out. Get comfortable with the silence. After time has passed (it may feel forever for you, but it won’t for them) ask open questions to get them talking. Try: what do you think about that? (notice ‘think’ – not ‘feel’). Why do you think this has happened? What do you think is going on?

shocked man


Despite what Frankie Vallie would have you believe, big people do cry – of all genders, even at work. This person is clearly upset, but recognise it for what it is: an emotional response to a difficult conversation.

Tears don’t always mean sadness – there could be a range of emotions going on. Give that person time, and if the sobbing is strong, offer a short break. If online, turn off video but keep the meeting going to indicate you want to continue after a little intermission of five minutes or so. If in person, go and get a glass of water or tissues for them. Then, start the conversation again, gently. Try: I’m sorry this is upsetting, tell me what you think about the situation? Are you ok to keep talking about this? I think it’s important we try and sort things out, tell me what happened from your perspective?

Offence / Indignation

In these situations, the person you are dealing with has taken offence to what you have said – and often throws an accusation back at you: How dare you? Who do you think you are? This is a defence mechanism – they could be feeling caught out, threatened, trapped or even surprised.

Here you need to draw on your inner Aretha Franklin: R.E.S.P.E.C.T – for yourself. Go back to your preparation. Remember why you need this conversation and respect your right to assert yourself. Stay calm and stay rational. Take a breath. Having done that, move away from the emotions of the topic and help them to see this is not an attack. Try: The reason I’m bringing this is up is so we can find a way forward together; what do you think could help us do that? I understand this is difficult, for both of us, I’ve outlined what I need, what do you need from me?

Deflection and Denial

As Shaggy taught us, saying ‘it wasn’t me’ – when it so clearly was – is a rubbish response. It shows a lack of responsibility and personal ownership. This person is either trying to blame someone else or refusing to step up.

This is where having your facts, evidence, and observations ready will help you. Otherwise, they may well be right to deny what you are saying. Again, stay calm and keeping your tone neutral can really help here. You are not trying to threaten them, you are trying to ask them to change or do something different – and you believe this is a reasonable request. Try: well, the facts are xyz, why do you think that is a problem? Or: I’m not here to talk about the Other Person – I want to talk about what this means for you and how we work together. I will follow up with the Other Person another time.


On the whole, reactions can be managed by recognising the emotions in a situation and then moving to a more neutral approach. However if the reaction is very strong, or even one of anger, end the conversation and let them go. Come back to it another time when heads are cooler and if necessary, get another party to join you as a mediator.

The good news is, our participants tell us that most of the time people react positively to a well thought through, well prepared, conversation. Having strategies in place for handling reactions will enable you to be calm and keep things going. Don’t let a possible reaction put you off having that important conversation and getting a resolution.

We hope you found these tips useful and a huge thanks to all the participants who have shared their ideas.

 What’s next?

If you’d like to understand more about what makes conversations difficult and how you can gain confidence in having them, read this short blog:

If you’d like to speak to a consultant about a particular challenge you’re facing in this area, contact us online or call us on 020 7978 1516.

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Yvette Gyles

About Yvette Gyles

Yvette specialises in leadership, personal effectiveness, change and innovation. Before joining =mc, she worked in HR for several years in both the private and charity sector as an HR...