How to have that difficult conversation

Posted on: 2012-09-25 in How To   |   Tagged: difficult conversation pr account management pr account manager

This post is an excerpt from the PR Account Manager's Handbook. Click here to download the entire series as an ebook.  By @TopLineFounder.

If you hope to succeed in business, then you need to be able to have a difficult conversation. In fact, sometimes for me, a week at work is nothing more than a series of difficult conversations, from telling a client they are being unreasonable, to providing negative feedback to an employee, negotiating a longstanding supplier’s rates down, or telling the PRCA you think small consultancies are getting a raw deal.

As an account manager you need to learn how to instigate, lead and survive these necessary evils. At some point you’re going to need to let a journalist down, ask a client or colleague for honest feedback, or inform a colleague that their actions are really affecting the team.

If you’re British, the odds are stacked against you – you’re taught from a young age how to beat about the bush, and you probably judge the success of a conversation on the extent to which you have avoided offending the other party.

So, while I am entirely unqualified to give advice on this (the first time I had to fire someone I went home and cried!), I have provided below my tips on getting through that stomach-churning conversation:

  • Do it in person. While it’s usually fine to reprimand someone or provide negative feedback via email, I tend to pick up the phone or call a meeting if the situation hasn’t been resolved after two electronic exchanges. That’s because the recipient can choose to read your email in any tone of voice they like. If they’re on the defensive, they will usually choose an angry tone, and the situation will get blown out of proportion.
  •  Do it immediately. Don’t chicken out through procrastination. Deal with the situation while it’s in front of you – there is no need to prolong the pain and you will be grateful for it once you’ve got it out of the way.
  • When you call a meeting, state what it’s about so that the other person knows.
  • Identify potential outcomes and rank them from most desirable to least desirable. Brainstorm with someone how you can guide the conversation away from the least desirable outcomes.
  • Prepare. Decide the main points you want to make and write a list of evidence based on concrete examples to back these points up. At the same time, compile a list of examples that contradict your points. This is necessary because no argument is ever completely black and white and you need to make sure you have been fair and considered how the other party will counter.
  • Run through these arguments with someone you trust and get their feedback. Ask them to be objective and take their comments into consideration.
  • Ensure you have chosen a location where there will be no interruptions. Turn off your Blackberry and make sure there is water available. Try not to meet in a coffee shop or a restaurant, as an over-zealous waiter, or a delay in the service can set the scene for uncontrollled awkwardness (I once had to tell an employee he was under-performing. I did it in Carluccio’s. The service was terrible, and by the time the coffee arrived we had already finished the conversation, his lip was shaking, I felt awful, and then we had to sit and have a lukewarm coffee together and make small-talk while I waited for the bill – the longest 20 minutes of my life, and his too no doubt!).
  • At the meeting, exchange pleasantries, but then cut straight to the chase – don’t drag it out longer than necessary.
  • Start by stating what you want to discuss and then ask the other person to comment. What do they think about the situation?
  • Make your points, pre-empt any objections and allow them time to respond. Keep on track, however and bring the conversation back to its main point when it veers away.
  • If you cannot reach agreement or a conclusion, give the other person the option of proposing a solution. What worked for me in a very awkward conversation in the midst of negotiations to buy out my investors was the simple question (after months of arguing when the whole battle came to a very ugly head): ‘What would be the best possible outcome you would like to have from this meeting?’ It turned out that their best possible outcome was very close to my best possible outcome, and very far from the outcome we were heading towards. That reset the conversation and within hours, we had negotiated the finer points of a deal.
  • Once you’ve finished the conversation, if you deem it appropriate (or if it is necessary), follow up with and email in which you cover all the points made by both parties and outlines the final resolution.
  • Behave professionally after the meeting – be honest and fair, but never badmouth the other party. That’s just common sense and good manners!

And finally, if you are ever on the receiving end of a difficult conversation, then be grateful when the other party handles it in a professional and timely manner that gives you the best chance of leaving with your dignity intact. It takes courage and solid human fabric to confront the many challenges that business throws at us, and to consistently do so with grace is a rare achievement. I have watched many rubber-spined individuals weasel their way out of difficult situations, and avoid having that tough conversation with me, or a supplier, or a colleague. They probably don’t care, but every single one of them is on my mental list of people who will be snubbed if I'm ever famous. 

Hungry for more? Download the Account Manager's Handbook in its entirety by clicking here.

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About this blog


The B2B PR Blog is a resource for both PR professionals and people working in B2B industries on how to devise and implement successful B2B PR campaigns. The blog is managed by b2b pr specialist Heather Baker, founder TopLine Comms, an inbound marketingB2B content marketing agency and proud HubSpot partner agency and takes contribution from anyone sensible in the industry with something intelligent to say.  Follow Heather on Twitter @TopLineFounder or contact her via email on [email protected].


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