Confirm your email address to access
Sent Directly by me
Yes, Sign me up for Rana's tips, emails, direct communication and online content.

This form collects your email address so that our team can send you monthly hot tips. Occasionally you will receive emails and updates as well. Please check our Privacy Policy to see how we protect and manage your submitted data.

How to Have Difficult Conversations at Work – Dawn Metcalfe

My guest on today’s show is the author of The HardTalk Handbook and specializes in helping people have important but difficult conversations that they would rather avoid.

Since leaving her native Ireland, Dawn Metcalfe has worked in seven countries including China and Japan, and now calls Dubai her home. Known for her straight-talking truth-telling and powerful insights, Dawn has worked with leaders around the world to change their perspective, their behavior and their impact on others. Dawn’s inspiration behind the book was being hired on eight different occasions to tell an employee that they smelt bad!

We discussed how to approach difficult conversations in every day circumstances, such as a corporate employee wanting to give a peer feedback, or an entrepreneur disagreeing with your business partner. This episode is essential listening for CEOs who want to create a culture of “speaking up” (spoiler alert: this is linked to a culture of “being heard”).

Dawn draws from extensive research and neuroscience techniques to explain human communication behavior and how to combat instincts that hold us back. We talked about how to resolve conflict and affect change no matter what your culture, background or experience.

We also discussed Dawn’s journey and the challenges she has overcome to get to this point – from threats of physical violence by her teenage students to managing a chronic disease.

Being nice is not the same as being kind. – Dawn Metcalfe

You can find @TeamHardTalk on all social media platforms, follow Dawn Metcalfe on LinkedIn or Twitter @PDSiDXB. You can order the HardTalk Handbook online at and

Read the Transcript

Note: While When Women Win is produced as an audio recording, we are delighted to produce transcripts for those who are unable to hear. Kindly note that these are generated using a combination of speech recognition software and human transcribers, and may contain errors. Media is encouraged to check the corresponding audio before quoting in print.

Ladies and gents, my guest on today’s show is an authority on having difficult conversations. Dawn Metcalfe is a business coach who has authored two books: The HardTalk Handbook and Managing the Matrix. She has worked in seven countries, since leaving her native Ireland, and now calls Dubai her home. Known for truth-telling and powerful insights, Dawn has worked with leaders around the world to change their perspective, their behavior and their impact on others. We discussed how to get better at having all kinds of difficult conversations. We explored the reasons behind human communication behavior and how to combat those behaviors that hold us back. We also discussed Dawn’s journey and the challenges she has overcome to get to this point – from threats of physical violence by teenage students to managing a chronic disease.


It’s my absolute pleasure. Thank you so much for having me.


Now you’re an expert at helping people have difficult conversations.




How did you end up in this space?


Well, my first book was about Managing the Matrix, so it was about people working in a matrix organization and one of the things that became absolutely clear was a lack of accountability and it wasn’t just people not having the conversations down the line, so bosses to the direct reports, but also that people having conversations with their colleagues and with people that they needed to win, but they didn’t have control over them and they weren’t having these difficult conversations and that was particularly true in this region because of the level of diversity that we have.


And I think you had a funny job that really inspired you to write this book.


Yes. So over the last few years, I’ve been employed eight different times to tell people that they smell bad.


I didn’t know there were that many people that smelt bad in the workplace.


Oh, there’s way more than that. It is literally the very, very first thing that people talk to us about when they talked to us about difficult conversations. They also talk about lack of performance. They talk about talking about money, but really it is the small stuff we actually say you do need to sweat the small stuff and yes, that pun was intended.


Oh my gosh. So to many, that job of being hired to tell people they smell and doing that eight times, too many, that would be mortifying. To you, it wasn’t.


Yeah. I think I might be a little bit strange, but no. When the very first time, it happened, the guy, and we don’t do that anymore now we teach people how to do it themselves but this was a long time ago, and the very first time it happened, it was a manager who had eight people on his team and one of them smelt really bad and he wanted that conversation, but he wasn’t prepared to do it himself, but he also wasn’t prepared to allow me to just have that conversation. We had to set up a whole series of assignments so that every single person on the team had a difficult conversation with me just so we could cover the fact that this guy was going to be told that he smelt bad. Again, we don’t do that anymore. It’s by practice. But you know, a long time ago.


Right. But that wasn’t the hardest job you’ve ever had. You’ve had some pretty tough jobs. Can you tell us a bit more about them?


Well, I started my career in teaching. So my very first job was in Japan where I taught a kid. Then I moved to China to the middle of nowhere. I was the third foreigner ever to live in this particular town and I was the first female foreigner ever to live in this town and I was the only person who wasn’t Chinese for 11 hours in every direction. And that was. That was interesting. It was fun. There was also challenging. A couple of interesting things happened. One, I was sexually harassed by my boss, which was tiresome and kind of difficult because there was nowhere to go because there was just people, there was just me.


So you were working at a school at the time?


I was teaching teachers, so I was in a college at this stage. And then, but I was dealing with that, but then the Chinese embassy in Belgrade got bombed and the Chinese got very angry about this and there were demonstrations all over China. That was fine, if you were in Beijing or Shanghai where there were embassies and consulates and it was even fine as you moved into the bigger cities like Xian where there was KFC and McDonalds, but where I lived, there were no western things except me. So 500 very angry Chinese people demonstrating outside my apartment one day, plus the sexual harassment made me think you maybe it’s time to leave now. So I moved on to a different place in China.


You stayed in China though, right?


Yeah, it was an amazing time to be there. It was 50 years after the country had set up. It was in this huge amount of flux. The Chinese were allowed to buy their own apartments for the first time. They were allowed to buy property for the first time. It was, it was really an interesting time to be there. Eventually I left. I spent some more time in Southeast Asia. I went to Thailand, spent some time wandering around the states and then I moved back to the UK where I taught in a very challenging school. So I taught all boys, 11 to 18 year-olds in South London where we had a number of murders and I don’t think I had any day where I wasn’t sworn at or threatened with physical violence and sexual violence. It was an interesting time. And also, by the way, one of the best jobs I’ve ever had in my whole life.




Well, because the camaraderie amongst the teachers, because it was like we were going into a war zone every single day, but we were going into a war zone where the people that were fighting against us were also the people we were trying to help. And so there was a real culture of no blame and a culture of trying to help each other and also help the kids no matter what they did. Yeah, it was, it was an interesting time. But it was, it was challenging. Yeah.


But I really wonder, you know, I really have the utmost respect for teachers and I wonder what motivates you guys to go in day after day after day when, as you say, you’re threatened, you’re cursed at, you’re threatened with physical violence. I mean, they have knives.




There have been murders in that school. Why did you go back?


Because so many of the kids were amazing and what they needed was they needed structure. They needed discipline. So I was teaching languages, so I was teaching French and German and a little bit of Japanese and my German is not very good. It really isn’t. But I quadrupled our results and I quadrupled our results in one year simply by putting structure around it for these kids who didn’t have structure before. And I’m not a big facebook fan, but I’m on facebook with a kid that I taught years and years ago, a guy called Sean and yeah, he got in touch with me just the other week. I taught them Japanese afterschool for a little while and you know, you get to touch people’s lives and I get to do that now as a grown up working with grownups. But, and it’s amazing and I love my job. It’s the best job. But doing it with kids. That’s special. It’s a privilege.


So then you moved into the private sector from that job? From teaching in South London?


So yeah, I was working in another school, but then I got really sick. I got a disease called psoriatic arthritis. So it took about a year to get it diagnosed. I didn’t really know what was happening, sort of all of a sudden there were a lot of changes in my life. I had taken on a new job, I bought a house, I finished a relationship, I bought my first car and suddenly I started to get a little itchy scalp and little by little over a period of six weeks I was covered in psoriasis and then I lost about half my body weight. I was in extraordinary pain. At one stage I wasn’t able to walk, I was housebound. I lost my job as a result and I wasn’t sure if I’d ever walk again, never mind work again. So I was very lucky. I got the diagnosis, I was put on some excellent drugs that have gotten me better or at least keep me under control, keep it under control, but I was never going to be able to work in that kind of challenging school environment again.


You have to be just physically resilient as well as everything else because if you sit down, somebody takes out a knife so you know, you just have to be on the whole time. So a small management consulting firm asked me to start working with them, which I did. And then I came out to here in Dubai in 2008 as the recession started. So that was fun. But I’ve been here ever since. And the business has been going now for almost eight years.


Wow. So let’s talk about this disease that you had, that you live with now. How has that shaped your view of life and work?


It means I have to be really careful about managing my energies. So the job I do, for example, if I’m facilitating or training, I have to be full of energy. I have to be on. I have to bring that energy into the room and I can do that, but it means that I have to go home in the evenings and rest. And if I have 3 days where I’m doing that, I need 2 days where I’m sitting on the sofa. And one of the great things about running my business is I can do that and I can also get to take time out. So I have a little house in Sri Lanka and I run away to that whenever I can and I work there. And I don’t know why I feel it necessary to say I work there, like I have to prove myself, but I do work there, I mean I wrote a couple of books there, it’s where I do all the creative stuff, but I do it in shorts and a T-shirt. I am not in heels, not that I’m in heels today, I’m not wearing make up, I don’t have to worry about my nails. I think it’s just about balance. It make it absolutely clear that balance was something I have to care about every single day.


Yeah, I mean from your instagram, it didn’t look like you’re doing a lot of work in Sri Lanka, if I’m honest.


Yeah the last few months we’ve been here, but inshallah in the next couple of weeks I’ll be on my way back again and we get to start working on the next book.


What’s the next book?


It’s a secret.


All right, well let’s talk about the current book, the latest book. So HardTalk. Why do we find it difficult to have certain conversations?


That’s funny you ask people this question and while you know that nothing changes without a conversation, everybody nods sagely at you, and then you say, well why aren’t you talking? And the first thing people say is, well, I don’t want to hurt the other person’s feelings. And actually when you dig into that in a little bit more depth, what they really mean is I don’t want to hurt the other person’s feelings and then have to deal with the repercussions of that. We worry that people are going to react badly. We’re do mongers. So in HardTalk we talk about the brain drains, and one of the brain drains is human beings tend to look on the dark side. So we are twice as much worried about loss than we are excited about gain.


Sorry, we’re wired that way for survival at a primary level.


Exactly. And that’s why we spent so much time in the program and in the book looking at how we’re wired, which is what we call the brain drains and then what we can do about the brain trains. So for example, when we are presented with a threat of any kind, we react to it in the same way as we reacted to the threats as we were evolving. So we react to a boss looking at us funny or co-worker disrespecting us in exactly the same way as we react to a saber-toothed tiger coming at us. We either want to fight or flight and that’s not terribly helpful because the world is a lot more complicated than that these days. So one of the things we need to do is get control of that, get control of those emotions. And there is science there now that can help us to do that. So there’s a thing called affect labeling so that, which sounds very fancy, but all it really means is naming your emotions. And by naming your emotions, you’re kind of taking a step back. You’re reengaging the executive part of your brain, the bit that we want in charge, what we in HardTalk call the Doctor Spock part of your brain and making Homer Sympson, the amygdala, quieten down a little bit, so that we can focus on behaving in the way we need in order to get the results that we want long term, rather doing what feels good in the short term.


Okay so emotion labelling like what? What’s an example of doing that?


So for example, if you are in a situation where let’s say somebody’s cut you off on the road, and so you ask, you can feel yourself freaking out, getting angry. So the question is, is it anger? Is it anger, is it frustration? Is it a sense of injustice? The more specific you can be about what it is that you’re feeling, the more likely you are to be able to get in control of it and the more likely you are to be able to act on it.


And how would you act on it? I mean for me it would just be road rage. I can’t believe that `A.S.S just cut me off yet. So how do I own it or how does that change my reaction?


So by noticing that you’re feeling the emotion, the as I say that executive order of your grand kicks into gear and you can then start to think, okay, well this person has upset me. Of course they have. But is this an overreaction, yes or no, and then am I behaving in a way that gets me the longterm results that I want. So longterm. Do I really want to get into a fight with this guy on the motorway? Or do I want to continue to be a law-abiding citizen who behaved in front of my children in the way that I think, to model correctly in front of my children. So it comes back again and again and again to long term versus short term. And we’re humans. We want to live in the short term and we don’t need to, in this particular case, we need to focus on the longterm, focus on our longterm purpose or what we talk about is the purpose that you’d be happy to tell her mother about. Because here’s the thing. Most people in the morning, they do not wake up and go like I wonder how I can embarrass my co-workers. I wonder how I can anger my boss. I wonder how that kind upset my direct reports, how I can confuse my children. We don’t wake up thinking that and yet we do it. We do it a lot. Both of us do it, right? You can admit to that Rana?


Yeah, of course.


Thank you. So what happens in the moment? In the moment, doing those things, getting revenge, pushing back, punishing, shouting, all of that feels good right now. But it doesn’t get us what we really, really want.


Well I have, I’ve only realized that recently, but I think it is a maturing process. I mean it comes with time. Like can you hurry that up? I don’t know.


Well you can. Because the more you understand about what’s happening inside your brain and how to manage it, the more you can deal with this. So it was funny. I did a radio interview on the book the other day and one of the ladies who was interviewing me as a children’s book author, and she was very straightforward when I came in, she said I was not expecting to enjoy your book in any way. It’s a business book. I’m not bothered about business books, but what I found myself doing is using it with my teenagers and not only is she using it with the teenagers, but what I suggested to her was that she’d share it with her teenagers because if I had known things like this, I would’ve saved myself a lot of grief in my twenties. And thirties.


Yeah. So let’s go back to this, about having difficult conversations because in the HardTalk you talk about three elements. You mentioned one of them now. Purpose. Yeah. So let’s talk about the other two. There’s difference, topics and purpose. So can you walk us through this framework of yours?


So, so the real focus is, as I said, on the brain drains. But in order to sort of walk us into that, we talk about these three elements for the first one is difference, diversity and I want to be absolutely clear. Diversity is a good thing, right? We have won that argument. Nobody can make an argument against it. Every piece of research and statistics shows we need it for innovation and we need it for creativity. The difference, diversity does make HardTalk harder because the more difference there is between you and me, the more likely that there is for us to misunderstand each other. Simple as that, for us to misunderstand the words we mean, to misunderstand body language, to misunderstand actions. And so that’s one part of the problem with diversity. The other problem is because we’re nice people and we know that the chances of messing up or higher, we shut up. We don’t say something when we should do. So the the more different you are for me, the more likely I am to say nothing at all and for me to hold the grudges, for me to allow these problems to fester rather than to speak up and try and deal with them straight up.


Okay. Before you go on, can I just dive into both of those points because I want to ask about culture. You know, you’ve lived in Europe, Japan, China, and the Middle East. You just mentioned diversity. Are there cultural differences in speaking up or do all people all over the world just not like to have these conversations? What differences, what cultural differences have you seen?


Okay, so both. Yes. Most of us are primed not to have these conversations, even though we need them, but there are absolutely cultural differences. So for example, how you feel about hierarchy is often a cultural issue and culture by the way is not something that’s set in stone. Culture changes over time. So if we look at a 55 year-old man who was born in Bombay and we compare him with a 15 year-old boy who was born in Mumbai, that’s still an Indian culture, but it’s a very different culture. They have very different ways of looking at the world. Culture changes over time. But let’s stick with hierarchy for a moment. So if you take a culture where hierarchy is considered to be something that’s normal and useful, then it’s much more difficult to speak up to your boss or speak up to your parents obviously. But that same culture may have something else that makes hard talk easier. So for example, if you look at Guyana, Guyana’s in Africa. There’s a culture there where hierarchy is considered


Sorry where?




Oh Guyana. Okay.


Where culture is considered to be a, sorry hierarchy is considered to be something that’s a useful thing and a good thing, but, so not helpful for hard talk. But on the other hand, having self-control is considered to be hugely important as part of the culture. Do you know about the marshmallow test?




So the marshmallow test is great. The marshmallow test is this, you bring a kid into a room and you put a marshmallow in front of them and you say, would you like a marshmallow because it’s a kid. They’ll say, yes. I said, okay, so you can have two choices. You can either eat this marshmallow right now or you can wait five minutes and I’ll give you two marshmallows and you walk out of the room and you wait and see, that the kids who are capable of managing themselves and waiting, by the way it had been longitudinally studied over years and years and years and tend to have better life outcomes. They do better at school, they have better jobs, they make better decisions, and this test has been done again and again and again throughout western Europe and the States. It was never done anywhere else until recently. They did it in Ghana. In Ghana, the kids knocked it out of the park. They were so much better at this on average than the Americans


Better meaning they were more patient.


They were more patient. They had more self control. They’re better able to subsume what they wanted right now in order to get what they wanted in the future. So in that one culture, you have one aspect that makes hard talk harder, the appreciation of hierarchy and one aspect, the understanding that self control is important, that makes hard talk easier. So yes, every single culture has pros and minuses when it comes to hard talk and all the other filters make a difference too, right? Your generation makes a difference.


The younger generation is more likely to have a difficult conversation.


More likely to speak up than expect to be heard at least whether they are listening as much as they should do is another question. Your education will make a difference. How much money you have in the bank account makes a difference


To your willingness to speak up.


Of course it does.


Is that about confidence?


It’s about confidence and about having. It’s about having options.


Let’s talk about this. Speaking up, you know, there’s a quote in your book which I really like. “The world suffers a lot, not because of the violence of bad people, but because of the silence of good people”. Can you talk about that and can you talk about the consequences of silence?


So we did some research on, and I’m talking particularly in the workplace here, but we did some research in the Middle East and we asked people about a particular kind of hard talk, about bad behavior in the workplace. Ninety percent of people said they’d seen bad behavior in the workplace. Ninety percent. And by that they meant gossiping, backstabbing, cheating, not giving performance feedback, stealing credit, bad things. We said, okay, how many of you speak up? And only 30 percent of them spoke up, which means 70 percent of people basically told their colleagues, this is fine. I’m okay with this behavior. So the next question was, well, what do you do instead? If you don’t speak up, what do you do? You just keep your head down and get on with your job. Right? And the answer is absolutely not. They don’t. They do other things. Instead they gossip. They back bite. They talk about people behind their back. They hint around the topic, they call in sick, they transfer people, they leave their jobs. So they have real, real implications for productivity, for morale, for happiness, and ultimately for the bottom line because this, all of this has an impact on productivity as an impact on customer satisfaction and that it has an impact on retention because good people do not stay.


I mean aren’t we taught Dawn as children, if you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all and you’re taught like speech is silver and silence is golden and all these things, all these social sort of sayings designed to shut us up.


Yeah we are and in particular as women even more so but nice is not the same thing as being kind. Nice is not the same thing as being truthful. I’m not suggesting that this book or this program gives you carte blanche to say whatever’s on your mind however you want to say it. No. There are times when you should absolutely be quiet, but there are also times when no matter how hard it is for you, you should speak up. So I tell this story and I tell it in the book and sometimes I’m told it’s just too crazy that it can’t possibly be true, but I promise you this is true. So I was working with a guy who’s now a global sales leader at the time he was regional and I asked him what his biggest career regret was and he told me that it was about the very first sales manager job he had. And he had a guy working for him who was underperforming and instead of telling him this and giving it to him straight and telling him what he needed to do to improve and giving him a deadline to do so and making clear what the consequences were. He didn’t. He just allowed them to fail until he failed out of the organization. So fast forward 10 years, my guy, the manager is walking down the streets in the states, all of this happened in the states, and he sees a homeless guy on the side of the read and it’s the guy that he didn’t give the feedback to.


No way. A homeless guy now


A homeless guy now. No I’m not saying, I’m not crazy, I’m not saying that one conversation could have changed this, but I will tell you that that’s that manager’s biggest regret, that he didn’t give them that opportunity to improve. So ultimately I think it’s not the content of the conversation that you’re having. It’s the intent. If people believe that you’re on their side, if people truly believe that you’ve got their best interest at heart, then you can say things to them and we’re very clear on that. So that brings us back to one of the three elements. What’s your purpose? What are you trying to achieve in this conversation? And if it’s not a good purpose that you’re prepared to share that don’t have that conversation.


Okay. Now in your book, you also talk about the importance of listening. Yes, so I was going to ask, do you know maybe your book should be called Hard Listen, I don’t know. Could it have been called hard Listen to how important is listening?


Yes. Listening is absolutely crucial to to everything in life and in business. Ultimately, what we’re talking about here is trying to communicate more effectively with another person and the only way to do that is by listening. If I don’t understand why you’re behaving in the way that you are, then I can’t possibly choose the right things to talk to you about that will change the way that you’re behaving, so oftentimes listening is felt to be this kind of soft and fuzzy leadership quality, but I pushed back very hard on that particularly because I have proof from the FBI that listening is the most important thing. So FBI crisis negotiators. The very first thing they


That’s called competitive listening. Everybody does that.


It’s called competitive listening, or you know, a marriage.


Alright. So what are some tips on being a good listener? Apart from like literally just be quiet and listen.


Yeah. And, and it’s no coincidence that the letters in listen are the same letters that make up the word silent. So yeah.


I think it might be a coincidence Dawn.


It might be. Yeah that’s fair. It probably is a coincidence. I’m going to go into some etymological research. So when we ask people why don’t you listen, they say things like, I already know what they’re going to say, which just makes me roll my eyes in despair. Particularly in this kind of multicultural world in which we live, you do not know what the other person’s going to say. You don’t know what their experiences are, you don’t know what they’re thinking. And then they say things like, I get distracted and that’s fair. We do get distracted because we don’t know what we’re listening for. So what we suggest in HardTalk is that we listen for three things. You listen for facts, you listen for opinions, and you listen for opportunities to ask questions because that helps you stay focused in the conversation. I’m sure that’s exactly what you’re doing now.


Yeah I’m listening for opportunities to ask questions, absolutely.


But it’s important to not just listen to the facts because facts are not what change people’s behavior. Facts are not what impel people’s behavior. It’s how people feel about facts that make the behavior happen. So understanding what’s happened is one thing. Understanding what people feel about what’s happened is just as important.


Gotcha. Then that brings me really to the platinum rule.


Yes, so we told the golden rule, do unto others as you would want to be done onto in the Christian tradition.


So treat others as you would want to be treated.


Exactly, but the platinum rule is even more important. The platinum rule is treat people how they want to be treated. And in fact the same sales manager I was telling you about it, he told me a really interesting story. So when he moved from the States over here, he was working in a really diverse place for the very first time and his employee engagement scores went through the roof like more than anybody else’s in the company worldwide. And HR were fascinated by this and they took a trip over to find out why. And they sat him down, they said, what have you done, how are you motivating your people so effectively? And he said, well look, this is the thing, I turned up here and I’d never lived outside of the States before and suddenly I’m dealing with an Egyptian and a Lebanese and a Jordanian and an Irish and a South African and an Emarati and an English. And I had no idea what motivated these people. So I asked them. And then I treated them like that and HR were really annoyed because it seemed too easy.


They should have been training all their managers to be doing that.


Yeah. I mean it’s, it’s an easy thing to do. Right?


So let me just go into that a little bit. You ask them, what do they say? Like I’m thinking in my corporate experience, if a manager had come to me and said, what motivates you? Like I wonder what I would have said. I’m not sure.


Well, I think you get different things from different people at different parts of their lives. Right? So I just had a meeting before I came into with a guy who for him it was being able to take time off to go to the movies during the day.


Oh my God. That’s a thing.


That’s his favorite thing. He likes going to the movies when it’s quiet. So for him it was about that. For me it’s not dissimilar, right? For me it’s about having control over my own time again because of the disease I need to be able to do that. For other people it is money, for other people it’s status, right? Having the nice office with the nice title. Different people want different things.


And so the important thing is that this manager took the time to find out what his various employees wanted and then acted on it.


And this is the problem because one of the issues that comes with listening is that you learn things which would you think would be a good thing, but many of us don’t like learning things and so if you’ve gone to all the trouble of listening to people and they’ve spoken up, you have to act on that, or at least tell them why you’re not acting on it. You can’t say thank you for speaking up and then wander off and you certainly can’t punish them for it. But that happens all the time, right? We want to hear your views. We want to hear your views. Well, here’s my view. Oh I did not like that view. No, if you’re going to work very hard to speak, and we call it listen hard because it does take hard work, it’s not simply enough to say my door is open. You’re an adult. Come and speak to me. You’d have to create a culture or a climate where people feel like they actually will be listened to. Not necessarily that they will win every argument, but that you will try to understand them and we’ll pay them the courtesy of explaining why you’re not going to behave in the way that they want you to. It’s not easy. We call it hard talk for a reason.


Alright, well let’s talk some real life hard talk. Okay. So let’s take a few scenarios. Bearing in mind that the listeners are now thinking, right? How do I have these difficult conversations in the workplace? Alright? So imagine I’m a corporate employee working on a team and I have a teammate who’s basically my peer, you know, I don’t report to them, they don’t report to me, so they’re at the same level, they’re underperforming. I think your thesis is what you should tell them, okay, how do I do that?


Okay. Firstly, you have to. You have to go back to your purpose. Are you telling them for the right reason? So if you spent the last year under-coaching and undermining this person, if you’re in direct competition with this person for a promotion, guess what? Shut up. They’re not going to. Whatever you say, they’re not going to believe you. Assuming that that’s not the case. First thing you do, you ask for permission. You treat somebody with respect. You give them a heads up. You ask them if they have a few minutes to discuss their performance in the last project or how they did the last presentation, and you wait for that permission to be granted. If that permission is not granted, you don’t have that conversation and if it’s really important to you and you try again and then you try again and they keep saying no. At some stage you have to stop and you have to have a different hard talk. In that case, you ask them why they’re so worried about having a conversation with you, but assuming that they say yes, the next thing you’re going to do is you’re going to start with your truths. So you’re going to say the facts. So a truth is something that we see and hear. It’s not what we think about, what we see and hear. So anytime that you use an adjective, that’s not a truth, that’s your interpretation of the truth. So for example, it might sound something like in the presentation, there were four typos on the third slide and when you were asked a question by the VP of sales, you were unable to answer it because you didn’t have the numbers at your fingertips.


Those are facts, those are truths.


Those are facts, right? Everybody in the world, if that somebody had been in there videoing it, that’s what we would have seen and what we would have heard. And then you’re going to share. You’re almost certainly going to show your purpose in this scenario. So why are you telling them this? I’m going to, I want to talk to you about this because I think I can help and I’m not trying to embarrass you in any way. I’m not trying to humiliate you. I want to tell you this because I think I can help you. And then you’re going to give them your perception or the consequences of their actions. So you might say something like, it feels like maybe you didn’t prepare as much as you could have done or it feels like maybe something else came up and you took your eye off this ball or you might say something like, I’m a bit worried that our boss is going to think that you’re not taking this project seriously, and then you just stay quiet, stay quiet. And if they don’t say anything, ask them the question. Ask them, am I right about this? Is there something else going on? What have I missed in the situation? And that’s how you start that conversation and it’s still hard. No matter what you do, it’s still hard. At some stage you have to take that deep breath and say you smell that? You’re underperforming. I think you’re cutting your nose off to spite your face. Whatever it is.


I just, you know the difficulty I see with this Dawn is there seems to be no personal upside here. Like you’re saying, we want the employees to have these difficult conversations for the good of the company.


And the good of the relationship and their own personal good. If you think about how much time people spend not only at work whinging and complaining about a scenario in a situation that they find themselves in, but they bring it home with them, they bring it home to their spouses, they bring it home to their kids, just the amount of mental energy we expand on stuff that we’re not even trying to change. So in HardTalk, we talk about the rule of adultery, which is you can do anything you want to. You’re an adult, you can make any decision you like, but you have to live with the consequences. So decide not to speak up by all means, but then get on with your life. Don’t hold it against the other person. Don’t hold it against the organization. Don’t allow it to derail what you think is important to you. We talk about letting it go or letting it go. Have that conversation. If you don’t win, let it go, or if you can’t let it go, leave the organization. Get Out.


Yeah, I mean, I have to say I did find it very frustrating in a company that I worked for, there was one person who just kept whinging and complaining about how much they hated being there, and it’s like, well, if you hate it so much,


They could change.




Yeah, absolutely. And those people are the worst because they create more of themselves.


So what’s your advice to entrepreneurs having issues with business partners?


So again, it’s very similar, right? It’s about making sure that everybody sees themselves as trying to achieve the same thing. So in this scenario, you again, again, you start with asking for permission. You give that heads up, you show that respect, but you absolutely start with purpose. So we’re in this together. The reason that we set up this business was to, and then you go back to what you all decided was the point of it, and then you start to explain how what they’re doing right now or what you’re doing and what somebody else is doing or what the organization is doing, what the partner, external partners are doing, how that is undermining what you’re all set out to do. And again, stick with the facts. Stick with the facts, stick with the facts. You’re allowed to explain your judgement, you’re allowed to explain the potentials you’ve come up with, the stories you’ve come up with about those facts, but you have to do so humbly and you have to do so acknowledging that all they are stories that you’ve told yourself that they may not in fact be how the other person sees that and acknowledging again and again that impact is not the same thing as intent. Just because somebody comes across to you as rude for example, doesn’t mean that they meant to come across to you as rude and how they impact you is not necessarily what they intended to do.


Yeah. I need to use that on my mother. She tells me. She always tells me I’m so rude. I’m like really was that rude.


Yeah, so you can be really good at this stuff professionally and really suck at it privately. I’ve personal experience of that. Yes.


Talking to my mother, I was. I don’t know, like are there different rules for example? For talking outside the workforce.


Theoretically, this works, this approach works with everybody, but it’s harder. The closer you are to somebody, that’s why for entrepreneurs dealing with their partner is so much more difficult because this is somebody that you’ve, you’ve gone right, it’s you and me against the world. We’re going to build this thing. It feels personal. The more personal it is, the harder it is. And if you go back to that third element, to topic, that’s one thing that we found, the more personal the topic is, the harder it is for people to have it. So when we’re talking to our mothers, that’s very personal and also our mothers know which levers to press, they know what buttons, I just realized my mother is going to be listening to this.


Yes. she will. Just because you disagree with me, doesn’t mean I’m being rude.


Exactly. It does not. The other question to ask is to bring them back to the truth, right? To say exactly what it is that I did that made you think I was being rude. Because people get to say things like that well you’re rude. Well, I don’t want to come across as rude. I don’t want to insult you in any way. In order to stop doing that, you need to explain to me what it is that I’m doing and tone of voice is not enough. Yeah, right. You have to explain exactly what I’m doing and then I will make a commitment to try and change it, but you have to hold me accountable to that, so every time that I roll my eyes, I need you to point out, Rana, you’re rolling your eyes. I don’t know if you roll your eyes.


I don’t know


Rana’s mother, if you’re listening, you can call me.


I tell you Dawn, this episode is going to have repercussions, so I’m just gonna bring it back because we’re going to end soon. I just want to crystallize it for the listeners because this is really, really valuable. Step by step advice on how to have difficult conversations in the workplace.


Sure, I absolutely can. We start by asking for permission, sharing a purpose, sticking to the truth, sharing consequences, asking questions. If you can start like that, you’re setting yourself up very well.


Great. I mean, of course you know, people are listening here, but the program is 20 hours long, right?


The program is 20 hours face to face training, split over five face to face half days, and then there’s an online platform that goes before, during and after each one, which is probably maybe 10 hours depending on how much time you spend on the assignments. And then there’s the book as well of course.


Yeah, it’s the HardTalk Handbook.


The HardTalk Handbook and just so you know, we’re supporting local. So the ways to buy that online here on and, you will not find us on Amazon.


Oh, fabulous.


Well the ecosystem’s been very good to us that we’re being good back.


Great to know what. Well we’ll put all these links in the show notes.


That’s very kind.


And how can people get in touch with you, Dawn?


They can get in touch at and we’re @teamhardtalk on all the different social media channels you can think of.


Great. Dawn, I’ve enjoyed this tremendously. Thank you so much.


Me too. Thank you so much.


I hope you enjoyed today’s episode. You can check out show notes and more episodes at or search: When Women Win on iTunes, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts. I’d also love to hear your feedback and ideas for who I should bring on the show. You can find me on instagram @RanaNawas. Thanks and have a great day!



End Of Transcript