Navigating difficult workplace conversations
The Sector > Quality > In The Field > How to successfully navigate difficult conversations in the workplace

How to successfully navigate difficult conversations in the workplace

by Freya Lucas

February 28, 2024

All workplaces, including early childhood education and care (ECEC) settings, will have occasions where difficult conversations need to take place. 


For leaders and managers, these conversations may be in relation to performance management, in response to a specific incident or complaint, or as situations in the broader community arise. 


For educators, difficult conversations may sometimes happen with parents or colleagues in the course of their work. 


The Fair Work Ombudsman (FWO) has provided information about navigating difficult conversations, which has been contextualised to the ECEC profession. 


State the issue


The first step recommended by the FWO is to clearly state the problem and provide specific examples, while also outlining the impact that the decision has made on the ECEC service. 


For example, in a discussion about conflict between two staff members, a leader may say “I’ve asked to speak with you today to talk about the language you were using when speaking to Jenny in the staff room. A parent overheard your raised voice and some of the names you were calling her, and has made a complaint. As well as causing potential reputational damage for the business, I’m concerned about Jenny’s wellbeing. We have a responsibility as an employer to provide all staff with a safe work environment.”


It is important to focus on the issue, not the person. Sentences, where possible, should begin with “I” rather than “you.” 


I was disappointed when the parent brought this to my attention” rather than “you shouldn’t have been speaking to her like that when parents can hear you.”


Throughout the conversation, remember that the person you are speaking to is likely to feel nervous or uncomfortable. If possible, highlight the things that they typically do well. 


For example, “We really need to get on top of this. I was surprised when I heard about the conversation, because you’re typically quite mindful of your tone and language.


Listen, and be curious


The next step in the process is to learn more about the motives of the person you’re speaking with, and what is happening for them, without judgement, and while considering your own biases and how they might impact your perspectives. 


Continuing the example from above, a leader might say “Can you tell me more about how that situation occurred? What happened to make you speak to Jenny that way?” 


Focus on listening more and talking less. Even if you’re convinced that you’re ‘right’, the conversation will be more productive if you listen. If the employee feels heard and understood, they will be more likely to listen to you.


Open space for them to share their perspective by asking questions like: 


  • “How do you see it?” 
  • “How do you feel about that?” 
  • “What was your intention there?” 
  • “What leads you to say that?” 
  • “Tell me about that…” 


Express empathy using statements such as: 


  • “I can see that this has been frustrating for you” 
  • “It sounds like this is upsetting you” 
  • “I want to make sure I understand you”.


Confirm and clarify


Once the employee has shared their perspective, it is important for the person listening to acknowledge their feelings, and perspective of the situation. Once they have finished talking, the person who is listening should confirm and clarify their understanding of what they have heard to ensure they have the employee’s side of the story correctly. 


In the example used above, this might look like “So what I’ve heard is that Jenny had not completed the observations you’d asked her to do, and that Sam’s mother was quite upset with you when Sam didn’t have any learning stories. When you spoke with her about that, she wasn’t receptive, and turned the blame back to you, is that right?” 


Acknowledge their point of view. Acknowledgement is different from agreement – you can say “this sounds really important to you” without saying that you agree with their position.




After hearing the employee’s side of the story, it may be necessary to reassess your position, but also to revisit the initial concerns you raised with them. 


This could look like “While I understand it would have been stressful for you when Sam’s mother was upset, it is against our policies, practices and code of ethics to speak to your coworkers in the way that you spoke to Jenny. Having our parents overhear that is even more of a concern.” 


If the conversation becomes adversarial, go back to listening and questioning. Asking for the employee’s point of view usually creates safety, and they’ll typically be more responsive. 


Find a solution 


The next step in the process is to work with the employee (or employees) who are at the centre of the situation, trying to find a solution. 


This may be something like “I understand that this situation happened because of your frustrations about the observations. What solutions can we put in place to help with your frustration?” 


It’s important to address all parts of the issue, so in the example being used in this piece, this would also include the policy breaches and any repercussions for those, as well as restorative justice for the two employees involved. 


In the event that suggestions are provided which aren’t workable, phrases like “I would prefer…” or “I wonder how that might work? What might work better is…


Close the loop


The final step in the process is to provide a record of the conversation to those involved, and to communicate the agreed actions and next steps. 


Thank you for taking the time to talk to me about this. I know it was a challenging conversation at times, but I’m hopeful that we can improve things for Jenny and yourself. I’ll get you a copy of these notes as soon as possible, and we can look at some professional development options to support you both.”


Access the original coverage of this resource here. 

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