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Managing difficult conversations


How to manage difficult conversations

Difficult conversations may not be an everyday occurrence in your studies but they will rear their head from time to time. And unfortunately they will not end once you have left university. Having difficult conversations is a skill you will need to develop as you progress through your life and career.

Common examples of difficult conversations during your studies

Difficult conversations can appear at University when students are in group projects and you have one or more team members who are not engaging in the group. This puts extra pressure on the others to pick up the slack, or creates anxiety that the quality of the assessed work will suffer or that the team member not pulling their weight will get the same mark as those doing all the catch up as well as their own work. No one likes to confront the issue, but there are strategies you can develop.

Another example might be where you are feeling unsure and lost in a module but you are worried about asking for clarity or help from your module leader in fear of looking stupid and being criticised.

How to manage difficult conversations

1. Be proactive

When you see a difficult situation happening, address it by focusing on the objective you are working towards

2. Be objective

Leave emotions and focus on the end goal by creating a discussion around roles, timescales and responsibilities. Be clear and specific so everyone is on the same page

3. Be receptive

Recognise there are different perspectives​ in the room and be willing to compromise for the benefit of the greater good.”

Why learning how to manage difficult conversations at University will help you in the world of work

Managing difficult conversations is a skill that will benefit your academic work and also set you up well for the world of work.

In many workplaces the most common difficult conversation you will have is when timescales are slipping and work is not getting done as fast as your manager wants. The longer you allow a situation to linger the worse it gets and the harder it feels to address. So it’s better to identify when things are going off track as soon as possible, however uncomfortable that may be, because then the situation can be saved more easily.

Another example of when you will likely have to manage difficult conversations in the workplace is in one-to-ones and professional reviews with your manager. This should be a time when you can talk about what is going well, but also what is not going so well. Many people find it difficult to raise problems they are experiencing, perhaps with their work, their colleagues, or their career more generally. By focusing on this as a chance to give professional-style feedback, it gives you a framework to express yourself professionally, and hopefully to then constructively work with your manager to find solutions through objective discussion and being receptive to different perspectives. 

Developing this skill now will help you transition more smoothly and confidently into the world of work or further study after graduation.  

Further resources

The following courses offer advice and training in managing conversations in group and workplace scenarios:

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