Difficult conversations at work

9 Sensible Tips to Navigate Difficult Conversations at work – in English

It is a challenge to prepare for difficult conversations at work in a language that is not your mother tongue.

With the help of this article, you will be able to prepare your difficult dialogue. We’ll help you feel more confident during your English work interactions.

Let’s look at how to have hard conversations at work and prepare for a tricky meeting.

What is a "Difficult Conversation"?

A hard conversation is a work discussion that is difficult or uncomfortable to have.

It usually refers to a difficult topic where the participants are not in agreement on the issue at hand.

There are many reasons why people don’t want to have difficult conversations at work.

These can include fear of conflict or fear of confrontation. Some feel discomfort with being direct in a workplace setting.

Others experience feelings of powerlessness.

Perhaps you’re a new manager and the hard conversation is related to an employee you manage.

As a leader, you need to learn how to lead your team. You need to know how to listen. You need to figure out how to motivate your employees. Understand their needs and concerns. And very importantly, set clear expectations.

Then get out of their way to let them do their jobs 🙂

An experienced leader understands what it takes to be a good leader in the workplace.

But what happens if you lead an international team and need to have a hard conversation in English?

What is the Key Difference Between a Hard Conversation and an Easy Conversation?

A hard conversation is a difficult discussion where emotions could run high.

How is your employee, or the person you’re having the dialogue with, going to respond? You’re probably worried about the outcome.
It is important to have a plan before you start the conversation, and to be able to stay calm while listening.

For a non-native English speaker, it’s even more important to plan ahead.

An easy conversation is an informal discussion. It can be about anything at work and it’s not necessary to have a plan before starting the conversation.

In a workplace setting, you do not have to choose your words as carefully.

How To Have Difficult Conversations at Work (in English)

How To Have Hard Conversations at Work

The first step to have difficult conversations at work (in English is), of course, to get ready for them!

This includes practising the work conversation in your mind, or even better, out loud.

Thinking about how you are going to react in different situations. And perhaps even more important, how to bring things back on track if

  • your English lets you down or
  • the conversations starts going south (going in a direction you don’t want it to go).


It is important to have a plan of what you want to say before the conversation starts.

It helps if you have a list of points that you want to make before the difficult conversation begins.

What’s the goal of the conversation? Is it to ask something? Escalate? Remind? Or perhaps even to give an employee a written warning, or final notice?

Remember that these conversations will not always be easy. But with the right strategy, you can have successful conversations with your employees at work.

Let’s start!

Use an online mind map, or grab a sheet of paper and start preparing. Here’s how to have hard conversations at work.

1. What are your key messages?

Think about how you want to start the conversation and what you want to say.

  • What is most important?
  • Is there an “elephant in the room”?
  • And what can wait until the end?

Prepare questions or examples of what you want to talk about in case it is needed during the conversation.

This helps you be more specific, and you can practice vocabulary around it. Make sure to have this handy during the conversations, perhaps even print it.

Consider who else should be in the room if there are other people who will be present:

  • HR manager
  • A supervisor
  • A union representative
  • Etc.


What is their English level like?

Also remember the things that are NOT said during meetings.

What topics do you typically avoid during tough situations?

If it’s a key issue, include it. You’ll thank yourself later.

2. Know your audience

  • How well does the other person speak English? Adjust your conversation accordingly. Don’t use fancy words or jargon if the other person isn’t native or doesn’t have a high level of English.


  • Know what each person’s expectations are for this meeting. How do you think they feel about it? How might they react if the meeting doesn’t go well? What tends to trigger them? Calm them?


  • What are their goals for this meeting?

3. Be specific

  • Be clear on what you would like them to do differently or better next time; don’t just say “I need more work from you.” Tell them exactly what is expected.


  • Did you do something wrong? Could you have acted differently in the past? Admit it.


  • Practice key phrases in English. Do they sound neutral? Encouraging? Make sure you get the tone right. Examples: “I’d love to get your views…”, “Do you share my…”. “I reached this conclusion because…”

4. Stick with simple words in English

Simple words in English
  • You don’t want your English to come across the wrong way. If you use words that you’re not 100% sure of, the meaning might be slightly off.
  • So, for hard conversations in English – stick with simple language. Remember, the most important point here is the GOAL of the conversation and the outcome. Not to show off the new business English vocabulary your teacher just taught you in class.
  • Finally, it is important not to forget your manners. Be polite, speak clearly, and be respectful of the other person’s feelings. You as a manager should always lead the way by not losing your temper or saying things you might regret.

How Do You Start a Difficult Conversation?

The first step to start difficult conversations at work is the same whether it’s with a peer or an employee that you manage. Focus on yourself.

Make sure that you are calm, collected and focused on the task at hand. The next step is to identify

  1. What is the (real) issue
  2. What are you trying to achieve with this discussion
  3. Who needs to be involved from your company


Are you the manager? It might be helpful to get the employee to agree on some ground rules before the conversation starts.

For example, how long it should last, topics to discuss or postpone for another day, or how often you will meet again.

This will help both parties feel more comfortable with each other’s expectations.

To start hard conversations, write down neutral phrases in English to kick off the conversation.

Try to find common ground with your employee.

Body Language

Also, apart from focusing on speaking English, remember your body language.

Start the conversation by making eye contact. Keep a positive body posture as you greet your employee and as the conversation continues.

If you feel that your English level is stopping you from reaching your goals, take a second to gather yourself. You can compensate (at least to a certain point) with positive body language.

But it also goes the other way, don’t say over positive things with a negative body language.

Be authentic and find a level that works for you.

Difficult conversations at work

How Do You END Difficult Conversations?

Difficult conversations are a part of life. Whether it’s with your boss, or a colleague, they happen.

But how do you end these conversations? Let’s look at two examples.

Did the difficult conversation go well? The end it in a skilful and productive manner. Recap what you agreed to. Make sure you’re on the same page (that you both agree) and outline what happens after the meeting.

If the hard conversation is leading nowhere:

If needed, explain why you are ending the conversation. Key phrases in English you can use:

  • I think at this stage the best we can do is to reschedule and continue perhaps tomorrow/next week…
  • I feel that we are going round in circles so let’s end this meeting and…
  • Would it help if we rescheduled and spoke more next…?
  • This has been interesting, thank you very much, let’s…
  • The purpose of this conversation was to X and I think we are quite far from….

What comes next? You need an action plan

It’s important to think about what the other person is feeling and what the purpose of the conversation was.

You need to leave them feeling like they were heard and understood.

And you want to end on a high note so that they feel good about themselves and the conversation.

Useful phrases in English:

  • “I hear you.”
  • “I understand where you’re coming from.”
  • “What would help is if I could…”


It is very important to end difficult conversations with a clear plan of action.  work scenarios

The following are some ways to end difficult conversations:

  • Acknowledge that this conversation has been hard for both parties. Thank the other person for their honesty and for joining the meeting.
  • Ask if there is anything you can do in response to what they have said, or if they need anything from you, or anyone else.
  • Summarise the points made by both parties, and recap what will happen next.

Conclusion & Bonus Section on Speaking English Fluently: 9 Tips

Having hard conversations in the workplace is difficult for native speakers. Let alone non-native speakers!

The English language has a lot of nuances, idiomatic expressions, and social cues.

These ALL need to be taken into consideration in order to understand the true meaning of what is being said.

This can be very frustrating for someone who is not proficient in English.

Mainly because you constantly have to guess at what people are trying to say instead of understanding it directly.

This makes having hard conversations… harder.

  1. Prepare for different scenarios. What happens if it goes well? What phrases and strategies can you use to steer things back on track? Ask other stakeholders for advice or do roleplays.

  2. Avoid business English words you’re not completely sure of what they mean.

  3. Write down neutral phrases in English you use during hard conversations. (Print it to have it handy).

  4. Adjust your English level to the other meeting participants. Are they natives? Or struggle with speaking English?

  5. Do you need any particular vocabulary? I.e., legal or technical terms?

  6. Mind your body language. Take a deep breath and count to six if you feel yourself overwhelmed. It will feel longer for you than the other person, but chances are that your response will sound a LOT better.

  7. Focus on the outcome and what is being said, less on speaking perfect English.

  8. To avoid overthinking what they say in English, some managers prefer walking meetings. i.e., when your body is busy walking, the language flows.

  9. Walking meetings can also provide a neutral surrounding. Avoid office settings where others can hear you, and power plays like meeting in a manager’s office, etc.

The more you practice...

To sum up, having hard conversations in English is all about preparing yourself from a language and mental point of view.

The more you practice and demystify, the easier it gets.

If you’re already taking Business English classes or signed up for leadership training, these will help you prepare for tough meetings at work.

With role playing and key phrases you’ll feel a lot more prepared for different work scenarios!

Practice English conversations in different situations, as you never know how the meeting with your employee might go.

If you’re interested in learning more about this topic, we recommend the book “Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most“. You can read a high-level summary here.

Picture of Dave Jones
Dave Jones

...holds a DELTA certificate with a masters in applied linguistics. Born and raised in England, he's got 17 years of experience as an English language trainer. He specialises in English for Business here at Nativos since 2015.

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