Difficult conversations are part of the territory for HR. They are the ones who have to deliver the bad news, justify unpopular policies with line managers, and deal with employees who are not performing (or behaving)

As an HR person on the front line, it’s important not to under-estimate the toll this can take on your emotions. Telling someone their role is redundant can be as upsetting for the messenger as it is for the recipient, while dealing with un-co-operative managers who know exactly which buttons to press can send your blood pressure soaring.

However cathartic it may feel at the time, having an emotional meltdown will not put you in a good light and may even have long-term implications for the way you are perceived at senior level.

So, what steps can you take to manage your emotions effectively when faced with a difficult conversation or unexpected confrontation?

1. Prepare yourself

Some issues can blow up out of nowhere, but in many cases we do know when a difficult conversation is going to arise.

You will be better able to handle your emotions if you have prepared for the situation in advance. Think about how you want to get your message across, how the other person is likely to respond, and how you will react if emotions start to run high.

Of course, not all conversations go according to plan. But if you have invested time in acknowledging difficult emotions that may arise and preparing to deal with them, you will have a better chance of handling the situation successfully.

2. Be aware of your own mood

How you are feeling personally on the day plays a huge part in how you are likely to respond to a testing exchange or unexpected challenge. If you’ve been stuck in traffic for an hour, had an argument with your partner, or even if you’ve woken up grumpy, it will change the way you respond.

Take time to recognise what kind of mood you are in and how it is likely to affect your interactions with others during the course of the day. If necessary, take action to try and lift the cloud – maybe go out for fresh air or listen to some uplifting music to help you reframe and relax.


managing emotions


3. Be in the moment

Take a mental step back and give yourself a moment to choose how to respond rather than simply reacting in the moment. Recognise the emotion you are feeling as it arises, whether it’s anger, sadness or frustration, and tray and ‘park’ it so that you can deal calmly and constructively with the situation.

In her book ‘The Leaders Guide to Emotional Agility,” author Kerrie Fleming points to the benefits of being present in the moment. “This will prevent the emotion dragging you down under its force and you can hold or free it until later when it is more appropriate to deal with it,” she says.

4. Listen more than you speak

If emotions are running high, it’s often helpful to focus on listening rather than instantly jumping into a heated response. Let the other person have their say, ask questions and clarify, to make it clear you are taking their concerns on board. If a person’s reaction seems over the top, probe a bit deeper.

It may turn out their emotional response has little to do with the situation at hand and could have its roots in an underlying frustration with a work situation or a personal issue. Listening will help you get to the heart of the matter, but will also give you the space to think carefully about how best to respond.

5. Put yourself in the other person’s shoes

If you’re preparing for a difficult conversation where you know there’s the potential for you to get riled or upset, it can help to put yourself in the other person’s shoes. What is going on in the background for them? Is a line manager pushing back on a new initiative or process, for example, because they are already overwhelmed with work and can’t get their head around it? Is an employee being particularly difficult because they are feeling under-valued or because there may be problems with personal relationships in the team.

If you can put yourself in the other person’s shoes, you will probably be able to take a more empathetic approach and can possibly avoid the conversation escalating to the point where both parties are angry or upset.

Further reading: The Leaders guide to emotional agility, Kerrie Fleming, FT Pearson 2016

Erika Lucas author image

Erika Lucas

Writer and Communications Consultant

Erika Lucas is a writer and communications consultant with a special interest in HR, leadership, management and personal development. Her career has spanned journalism and PR, with previous roles in regional press, BBC Radio, PR consultancy, charities and business schools.