Difficult Conversations™ | Managing People Training Activity

A set of essential steps, plus the right approach, makes so-called ‘difficult conversations’ much easier.

Learning Objectives

  • to give participants the confidence to hold difficult conversations
  • to see the importance of planning and gathering critical information
  • to show how to set the right tone
  • to encourage listening and empathy
  • to keep in mind the desired outcome
  • to remember to set follow-up dates

Five-Year Repeat Use Licence

This Northgate training activity comes with a five-year licence for repeat use with up to 24 participants per training session within the licence-holding organisation. Please ask for a discount for use with larger groups. Also includes access to the Northgate Trainerhub (see below for details).

  • Participants

    3-24 (1-4 teams of 3-6 per team)

  • Timing

    1 hour + debrief

  • Uses a computer?

    Not required

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The Activity

Many managers are fearful of so-called ‘difficult’ conversations. This activity equips them with the tools and confidence to hold effective, honest conversations with their staff.

Teams receive a Profile Card about "Aneesha", who has ‘issues’ that need to be addressed by her manager - represented by the teams. Teams then prepare for a conversation with Aneesha about her issues. (Note teams only prepare for the conversation - this is not a role-play activity). At this stage teams are given no guidance - it’s totally up to them how they plan for the meeting. After 15 minutes they make brief presentations of their plans.

Note how they perform. Did they for example set clear objectives for the conversation, identify specific critical events to support their views, think about the mindset in which the conversation should be conducted and identify the right tone for the meeting?

Next, issue the Questionnaire. This is designed to generate discussion and ideas on the topic of 'difficult conversations'. What does the term mean, what is the ultimate objective of such a conversation, why do people often fear the task? Discuss the responses with the whole group and identify key points.

Teams now receive a second Profile Card -this time relating to Lucas. But they also receive a handout, Planning the Conversation, and are asked to prepare for an interview with Lucas. Equipped with the guide to planning and all the tips and techniques learned so far from the session, the team plans should be more focused and well thought out than for Aneesha. After 15-20 minutes ask for brief presentations.

In the debrief, there are lots of useful key points to discuss and a further handout Key Points Checklist for participants to take away.

Participants leave with confidence - realising that holding 'difficult conversations' is not that difficult after all. It's all about sound preparation, identifying the facts, having an open, enquiring mindset and following a few common sense rules.

NOTE: for both Aneesha and Lucas two sorts of Profile Cards are included. The text on both is identical but the images are different. Does appearance make a difference to perception? There are also two extra profile cards for variety.

This activity is NOT a role play though there is additional material for an optional role play session.

Trainer's Role

  • Introduce the activity as one that focuses on ‘honest’ or ‘difficult’ situations that call for good communication skills.
  • Divide the group into teams. Typically 3-6 per team.
  • Issue a copy of the Profile Card - Aneesha to each team and ask them to plan for a conversation.
  • After 15 minutes ask for brief presentations. Make notes on salient points.
  • Issue the Questionnaire and allow teams 10-15 minutes to work through it. Then hold a discussion on issues arising.
  • Next, issue the Profile Card - Lucas. If you wish, issue cards with different photographs (same text) to different teams.
  • Teams now plan for a conversation with Lucas using the handout Planning the Conversation.
  • Ask each team to report back on their plans.
  • Lead a general Debrief and summarise the key learning points that emerged.
  • Issue the Key Points Checklist for participants to take away.

Full guidance supplied in the Trainer’s Notes.

Pack Contents

  • Trainer’s Notes
  • Profile Card: Aneesha (photo option 1 & 2 - cards & PDF file)
  • Profile Card: Lucas (photo option 1 & 2 - cards & PDF file)
  • Handout 1: Questionnaire (A4 pad & PDF file)
  • Handout 2: Planning the Conversation (A4 pad & PDF file)
  • Handout 3: Key Points Checklist (A4 pad & PDF file)
  • Alternative Profile Card: Peter (PDF file)
  • Alternative Profile Card: Chloe (PDF file)
  • Optional Role Play: Raja - Manager's Brief (PDF file)
  • Optional Role Pay: Raja - Employee's Brief (PDF file)
  • Optional Role Play: Raja - Extra Information (PDF file)

This activity is for face-to-face classroom use. It is supplied as a hard copy pack and the digital files are supplied via the Northgate Trainerhub.

Northgate Trainerhub

Benefits of the online Northgate Trainerhub include:

  • Easy-to-access resource library which stores all the digital files for the activity in one place
  • Immediate access to upgrades made to the activity over the five-year licence term
  • Access to an online Trainer Forum where you can post questions, share experiences & network with other Trainers
  • Access to free activities and icebreakers
  • Unlimited Trainer logins for all Trainers based at the licence-holding site

Northgate Activities make an excellent and good value part of a wider development programme. They are fun and highly effective. From a facilitator's point of view they are easy to learn, adapt and deliver.

Jonathan Aylwin, C2C Program Manager (Global Industrial), TE Connectivity

My colleagues and I have been using Northgate activities for 25 years for team-based learning and we have always been impressed by the quality of the material and the insights the students get from taking part in these activities.

Paul Roberts, Principal Fellow for Quality & Reliability, WMG, University of Warwick

The 'Difficult Conversations' activity came at just the right time for us as we were designing a People Management course which included having difficult conversations. The case studies and role play generated valuable discussions and the delegates commented that the “Planning A Conversation” guide was a handy tool they would use again in the future.

Julia Latimer, Leadership & Management Development Consultant, Network Rail

Our participants found the 'Difficult Conversations' training activity very useful both in approaches for people they manage, also with our external stakeholders. Two (of our four) NMC values are ‘We are fair’ and ‘We are kind’ and the activity aligned really well to those values. Particularly the approach to listening and empathy. I have been using Northgate activities for around 7 years and have always found them effective and high quality.

Marie Mostaeddi, Head of Learning & Organisational Development, Nursery & Midwifery Council

'Difficult Conversations' works really well for us.

Claire Weir, Talent Development Manager, Northern Trains

A ‘big thanks’ to you for all the great help that you gave earlier this month when I needed a quick turnaround on the ‘Difficult Conversations’ activity for one of my clients. I really appreciated how quickly you responded and all the help that you gave me. It was all done so brilliantly on your part that the session went really well and the fact that I was able to use the scenarios from the ‘Difficult Conversations’ pack really made a lot of difference.

Michael Heath, Director, Michael Heath Consulting

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