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How to have those difficult conversations

Difficult conversations with staff and suppliers can become even more difficult depending on your mode of communication. Here’s how to convey your message with empathy and respect. By Angela Tufvesson

Difficult conversations with staff members, suppliers and even patients are unavoidable when you’re running a dental practice. And the unfortunate reality of the coronavirus pandemic is they may be happening more often than usual.

Perhaps you need to talk to a staff member about reducing their hours or a supplier about decreasing your regular order. A difficult discussion with patients about enhanced hygiene measures in the practice might also be on the cards.

So how can you ensure these conversations are gentle, respectful and not super awkward?

Plan and prepare

The first step is to give the other party a heads-up that you need to have a conversation, says business psychologist Eleni Dracakis. “Send an email or catch them in the hallway and just let them know you’d like to arrange a time to have a chat,” she says. “Provide a little bit of context about what the conversation might be about so they can be prepared.”

Even though it might seem less confrontational to talk over the phone or email, Swagata Bapat, SANE Australia’s interim clinical director, says it’s best to arrange an in-person conversation. 

“You don’t know the environment that someone is going to read an email or text in,” she says. “As a leader, it’s really incumbent on you to ensure the space you set up to have that conversation is a safe, confidential and comfortable space. You can’t do that when you send a text or ring someone or send an email.”

Bethan Flood, general manager of Prime Practice HR Solutions, says it’s important to have a clear understanding of why you’re having the conversation and what needs to be communicated.

You might write a list of the key points to take with you, and it can also be helpful to practise what you plan to say with the help of a colleague or friend. “During a tough conversation, the words we use can be misinterpreted,” says Flood. “To ensure you’re communicating with kindness and compassion, sometimes you may need to practise how you’ll deliver your message and ask for feedback.”

Deliver a clear message

Choose a quiet, private space and start by acknowledging the value of the relationship you enjoy with your employee, supplier or patient. Then deliver your message. “Be very clear and specific,” says Bapat. “When we feel anxious, we can have a tendency to talk around the issue and fall over our words, and the person hearing our information may not get a clear understanding of what we’re trying to say.”

We’re in the midst of a global pandemic and people are already stressed out, so be kind.Eleni Dracakis, business psychologist

Dracakis recommends using a neutral tone of voice and explaining that business constraints are behind the reason for the difficult conversation—not personal performance.

“During these COVID-19 times, business owners are having to make a lot of tough decisions and in most cases these decisions are not linked to the performance of employees or the value of suppliers,” she says. “Wherever possible it’s really important to make that distinction and be as transparent as possible as to the reasons why you’re making these decisions.”

Be empathetic

Listening to your employee, supplier or client and adjusting the way you speak to suit their response shows compassion and empathy, says Bapat. “It’s really important to slow down the conversation as much as possible and to listen to what the other person might have to say,” she says. “If a person becomes really distressed or if it’s starting to feel very challenging, it’s okay to take a short break then restart the conversation.”

Dracakis recommends the classic strategy of putting yourself in the other person’s shoes. “Try to be as understanding as possible of how they’re feeling,” she says. “Let them feel heard. We’re in the midst of a global pandemic and people are already stressed out, so be kind.”

And there’s no need to cover everything in just one conversation. “Offer an opportunity for people to ask questions in the conversation but also to come back later with any follow-up questions,” says Bapat. “It can be difficult for people to digest really tricky information on the spot.”

Manage challenging reactions

It’s possible you may be met with feelings of anger, disbelief, confusion or disappointment, and Flood recommends trying to understand why the other person may be experiencing these feelings.

“This doesn’t mean that you’re agreeing that they should be upset, or that they’ve got a reason to be upset; rather, you’re just trying to understand why they’re upset,” she says. “People want to be heard and many times during difficult conversations people are emotional and may feel they’re not being heard.”

Controlling your own emotions can also help to diffuse the situation. “If you’re not able to manage your own reaction, that will have a negative impact on the conversation as a whole, so pause before responding,” says Flood.

And don’t forget to be kind to yourself, too. Having difficult business conversations during a pandemic isn’t easy, and Bapat says acknowledging that you feel uncomfortable is an important aspect of self-care. “Know that you’re doing the best you can and you’re not always going to be perfect and get it absolutely right—but you do it anyway,” she says.


Tufvesson, A 2020, ‘How to have those difficult conversations’, Bite Magazine, 20 September, accessed 30 September 2020, <>.


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