Author(s), Title and Publication:

Bradley, G. L., & Campbell, A. C. (2016). Managing difficult workplace conversations: Goals, strategies, and outcomes. International Journal of Business Communication, 53(4), 443-464.


In workplace, difficult conversations, such as “sensitive” topics and transmission or receipt of “bad news” are inevitable, especially in the occasions of employee performance evaluation and management, workplace negotiation, workplace conflict, and adverse interpersonal treatment in the workplace. When poorly handled, difficult conversations can lead to several adverse consequences, including negative employee cognitions and affective reactions, damaged employee relationships, reduced work performance, and employee resistance and retaliation. This article contains three different studies aiming at discovering what makes conversations difficult and examining effective communication strategies to make difficult conversations in workplace more smooth and productive.

The study combined three research methods of qualitative interviews, a quantitative survey, and an experiment. The results revealed that difficult workplace conversations occur frequently and are generally dreaded. One common type of these conversations entails a superior and a subordinate discussing perceived deficiencies in the latter’s work performance. Such conversations often involve disagreement, defensiveness, and resistance. Outcomes may include attempts by the subordinate to withdraw from the work situation either physically or psychologically, or to retaliate with accusations of harassment and acts of defiance. The frequency of such difficult conversations, and of their adverse outcomes, appears to increase at times, and in places, of work stress. Greater focus on supportive communicative behaviors and a greater willingness to “give face” to the other person were highlighted as ways that may reduce defensiveness and resistance, and thereby improve conversation processes and outcomes.

Implications for Practitioners

In order to create a supportive climate for better acceptance and less accusation during difficult conversations, managers and employees could employ the following six supportive communication strategies: (1) use nonjudgmental and understanding description in conversations, (2) be problem-oriented and task-focused, (3) value spontaneity, honesty, genuineness, and straightforwardness, (4) be empathetic and perspective-taking, (5) focus on equality among all conversation participants, and (6) be tentative, open, and tolerant to different ideas. In addition, managers and employees in workplace should pay attention to “face-work” in difficult conversations, such as carrying out difficult conversations in private, to protect, defend, maintain, and restore desired social identity of an interaction partner.

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Heidy Modarelli handles Growth & Marketing for IPR. She has previously written for Entrepreneur, TechCrunch, The Next Web, and VentureBeat.
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