Dealing with Difficult Conversations – What’s Your Type?

When it comes to difficult situations at work, I’m the ‘peacekeeper’ – the one who tries to smooth ruffled feathers and keep everyone happy. I know this because I’ve taken the CMI’s conversational styles quiz, designed to help people understand their natural approach to challenging discussions and learn strategies to improve the way they approach them.

The quiz has been developed on the back of a recent CMI research report, which found that although the trickiest conversations we face in our lives are generally at work, 82 percent of us have never had any training to help us handle them. More than half the managers surveyed said they have to face a challenging conversation at least once a month, with issues relating to pay, performance and colleagues’ inappropriate behaviors coming in as the top three that cause the most angst.

It’s an important issue. Conversations that are handled badly – or don’t happen when they should – can have a serious impact on business performance. Working relationships are soured, resentment builds, issues are left to fester – and people’s attention is diverted from the job in hand.

Getting an insight into the way you operate when a ‘we need to talk’ situation arises can be really useful. If we understand our preferred style, we can identify potential pitfalls and make any necessary tweaks to the way we deal with people, to give us a better chance of pulling off a win-win situation.

You can identify which of the four following ‘types’ you fall into by taking the quiz here:

Don’t assume you can work it out by yourself just from the descriptions. Like me, you may be surprised at your results!

The Peacekeeper

‘Peacekeepers’ don’t like arguments or conflicts. They skirt around issues, rather than getting to the point, and try to keep everyone happy. The problem with this approach is that although everyone feels ‘listened’ to, the underlying issues never really get solved. The colleagues who are not getting along continue to snip at each other and team members who are arguing over ‘whose job it is’ to perform a certain task never really get the clarity they need. As a manager or team leader, however, you need to get more comfortable dealing with conflict and to take responsibility for getting the issue resolved.

The Avoider

‘Avoiders’ are the ostriches burying their heads in the sand and hoping the problem will just go away. This is all too often the approach taken by managers to issues around poor performance. They brush it under the carpet, either picking up the pieces themselves or hoping others in the team will fill in the gaps. Performance reviews get delayed because they don’t really want to have the conversation. The trouble with this approach is that it can quickly lead to resentment as staff see their colleagues getting away with murder. At worst, it can cause a domino effect, with previously high-performing employees taking their foot off the gas because they know there won’t be any consequences. Avoiders can help themselves by building strong relationships with the people they manage, so that it is easier to address difficult issues when they arise.

The Bulldozer

Bulldozers steam straight in when there’s a difficult conversation to be had. They say exactly what they think, leaving people in no doubt about where they stand. The problem with this approach is that those on the receiving end often see it as aggressive. Their hackles rise and they quickly stop listening and become defensive. People who are being ‘bulldozed’ also don’t feel listened to – which means that you as a manager don’t always get the full picture. Is someone failing to meet their targets, for example, because they don’t have enough resources or because another department is putting barriers in their way? Managers who fall into this category need to make sure they are not making assumptions and can benefit from developing an awareness of how they may be perceived by others.

Professional Communicator

Professional communicators understand that if a difficult conversation is handled well, it can lead to a win-win situation. They think ahead about how they will handle the situation, listen carefully to what the other person has to say and retain an open mind. A good example would be a manager who has to turn down a request from one of their team to go on an expensive external training course. They will explain fully the reasons why this is not possible, but will have already thought about some alternatives they could offer, such as job shadowing, internal coaching or a stretch assignment. The employee may still be disappointed at the refusal, but will leave the conversation assured that they are valued and that their manager actively wants to support their development. Managers who already have these communication skills under their belt can improve even further by treating each conversation as a learning experience, thinking about what went well and how they might handle things differently next time.

One action to take this week: For more tips and resources on how to improve your skills in dealing with difficult conversations, visit

Information from the Chartered Management Institute’s report:

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