Nipping it in the bud: how to approach difficult conversations

Tuesday, February 2, 2016 - 17:54

Guest post by Georgia Murch

How many conversations with people, friends, colleagues, family become bigger than they need to be because you don’t ‘nip them in the bud’ in the early days?  That is, when you first noticed the issue or problem or when something wasn’t quite right. 

The scenarios vary widely; from being spoken to rudely, observing someone arrive too late, missing a deadline, an inappropriate outfit being worn, the second Monday being taken as a ‘sick’ day or your Manager cancelling your weekly catch up - the list goes on. 

It can be anything that may seem small at the time.  You might decide it’s not worth worrying about so you let it go because you ‘don’t sweat the small stuff’; or you’re too nervous to approach the person as it’s only once or twice it’s happened; or you deny it will become something bigger; or you just don’t want the conflict.  There are plenty of reasons as to why we don’t have the conversations but the point is… we don’t.  There is a downside.

Ignoring these issues can be the difference between a spot fire and a raging bush fire. The longer we leave them the greater the costs to the business and ourselves. When we see a spot fire we grab some water and put it out right? We know it could turn ugly pretty quickly and the costs can be immeasurable.  This is the same for when we don’t nip those conversations in the bud. 

McKinsey recently put out a white paper called ‘Bad to Great: The path to scaling up excellence’. They cited that the most important factor in obtaining leadership excellence was their ability to ‘Nip It in the Bud’.  Yep… Number 1! Leaders who are focused on improving behaviour improve organisational performance.  Eliminating the negative is the first step in the process.  Destructive behaviour—selfishness, nastiness, fear, laziness, dishonesty—packs a far bigger wallop than constructive behaviour and it hurts the bottom line. While a dollar figure hasn’t been placed on it here, in the US it’s estimated that counter-productive work behaviours cost about $4.2 billion each year.

So what we know is that;

  • If you do nothing…. nothing will change
  • It is highly likely that the action will repeat itself or get worse
  • It costs the organization and the individual avoiding the issue(s)
  • A remarkable conversation is likely to influence

Let’s follow these five simple tips to make work and life easier for ourselves and our colleagues;

  1. Don’t ruminate over yourself. Imagine not having to ruminate on the conversation over and over and over again in your head.  Imagine the sleep you’ll get, the reduced stress and anxiety, the time you’ll have to process other issues and how impressed with yourself you’ll be once you’ve done it.  Not to mention the improved effects for the business.
  2. Lead with facts, not opinions and feelings. Facts are indisputable, can’t be argued, tangible pieces of information or data.  It’s what people say or do. Or what the data tells us. It’s when we give examples and facts, that people are able to really understand why your opinions and feelings are relevant. Examples helps others really understand context.  Too many still think their opinions are facts.  They are not.
  3. Preparation preserves relationships. When we take the time to prepare for difficult feedback conversations and ensure they are structured correctly we are more likely to get the outcomes we are looking for. It’s so much easier to stay on track and for others to be clear on what we are saying.
  4. Face to face or voice to voice. If there is a tough conversation to be had then do them as any conversation should be done – in person or on the phone. Anything else does not honour the person or the outcome.
  5. Be the change you seek. Receive the feedback as graciously as you would like them to receive it from you.  We need to lead by example if we really want to make a difference.  Otherwise you are just the talking example not the walking one. 

So do yourself, and your colleagues, a favour and put out the spot fire by ‘nipping it in the bud’.

Georgia Murch is an expert in teaching individuals how to have the tough conversations and create feedback cultures in organisations.  She is the author of ‘Fixing Feedback’ and a highly engaging speaker.  Visit or email

AIM's Dealing with Difficult Behaviours short course supports your development as a proficient communicator, adept in dealing with challenging personalities and situations. Through this course you will gain the confidence and professionalism to maintain composure in the face of difficulty.