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Managing Difficult Conversations

3rd August 2021

As safety professionals, due to the nature of our work, sometimes we must have difficult conversations.  This may be due to observations of unsafe behaviour, or an occurrence that has resulted in serious injury, or possibly a sensitive topic with a colleague.

How can safety professionals best prepare for these difficult conversations?

I had the opportunity to explore some of the mechanics of difficult conversations with Isabelle Charland, Principal of HRI Human Resources International.

Isabelle Charland brings many years of experience and “hands-on” working knowledge in both human resources and staff management. She possesses in-depth experience and expertise in guiding clients through strategic and operational transformations in business practices and processes.

On the topic of difficult conversations, Isabelle had a few thoughts she was able to share, and also suggested we keep in mind a quote she values:

“Communication is not one event; it is a complex series of processes with one goal to achieve a shared understanding.”

~ Unknown Author

Isabelle feels it is important to be mindful that there are many different types of difficult conversations for us to manage.  Some examples might involve:

  • Performance management concerns with employees
  • Diverse views, thoughts, and perspectives
  • Tragic or critical incidents or circumstances that require immediate intervention

What is it that can make a conversation difficult? 

Some aspects that can contribute to a difficult conversation are:

  • Neither party wants to have the conversation
  • The audience doesn’t feel that they are being heard
  • We may be unsure of the outcome of the conversation
  • The subject matter may trigger some of the participants/audience

Difficult conversations may elicit emotions that can create barriers to listening, understanding, and having effective conversations.

Common emotions that may rise up in difficult conversations might be:

  • Anger
  • Shock/Paralysis
  • Disbelief
  • Sorrow

In essence difficult conversations might be viewed as one piece of a puzzle.  There may need to be consideration before, during and after conversations as well.

What might we want to be considering as part of the communication processes before, during and after a difficult discussion?

In an effort to develop effective communication, it may be helpful to prepare by considering the following:


  • Do we have accurate facts and information?
  • Is the conversation timely?
  • Plan to be clear, concise, and consider providing a solution if possible
  • Take a moment, collect your thoughts, and prepare for the conversation


  • Know when to add personal elements/examples, and when not to, if in doubt, keep it professional
  • Remain respectful, and manage our tone during the delivery of a difficult topic
  • Most importantly, take time to listen, and understand what the audience is saying
  • Be prepared to adapt and change your expectations in, and for the conversation


  • Summarize key points from the conversation only to ensure understanding
  • Clarify any outcomes, or actions expected from the conversation
  • Take time to debrief yourself, this paper looks at critical incident stress debriefing for health professionals

In Conclusion

When we think about these examples above, we must consider a difficult discussion is not a single event.  It is has many aspects that are interrelated in a series of processes and communications to achieve the singular goal of a shared understanding.

Isabelle stresses that it is essential to initially listen to our audience.  Listen to understand their perceived needs. When we visibly understand them, we gain their trust and are positioned to best provide solid services to them, put their needs, aspects, processes, and practices into practical application more effectively.

When we do this, we can perhaps make these necessary, and difficult conversations a little less difficult.

About Isabelle Charland

Isabelle provides policy writing and training including: Anti Bullying and Harassment, Critical Incident Stress Debriefing, Managing Difficult Conversations, Creating and Maintaining Respectful Workplaces, and Managing Workplace Stress.

Isabelle can be contacted at 778-350-5555 or isabelle@hrinternational.ca or visit the HRI website for more information.

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