Communicating Difficult Messages – What People Want

Posted August 7th, 2008

Suppose you have a difficult subject to get over to your team; e.g. you are a manager and you need to cut hours and that means some job roles will go, this will also increase the workload on the remaining members of the team. You anticipate some resistance to this but you know it is the right thing to do as some of the work is light and there is not enough work to go around.

What people want is to feel that they have been heard and understood. What they don’t want is to sense that you are indifferent or even hostile to their feelings.
Suppose you encounter strong resistance from a member of the team during the communication. What you don’t want to do is resist your “opponent” by arguing. This will only help to add scale to the point of view, but by acknowledging from the start that the concerns are valid and showing empathy for the situation you should help to engage them and help them to recognise that their concerns are not being ignored or discounted.

So, much of communicating tough topics is about unwanted change.

There are 5 things that people want when unwanted tough topics are communicated:

  • They want to talk about their fears – Let them have their say. People need to express their concerns, they need to react and articulate their feelings. Your role, as leader, is to listen and respect their views even if you think their comments are illogical and unfair.
  • They want you to acknowledge that their concerns are valid – Never dismiss the feelings of others. Their feelings are very personal to them and by dismissing them an immediate barrier will be formed which it is very difficult to break down.
  • They want a role in deciding the aftermath – Allow people to work out for themselves how to adapt to the situation and allow them to have input where possible.
  • They want to hold on to the familiar – Keep as much of the familiar as possible. People will naturally want to hang on to what they know.
  • They want a good reason for their sacrifice – Explain the decisions be they yours or the business. It helps if they can see something good from the decision so emphasise the benefits as much as possible.

This article is adapted from the trainers notes of the Trainer Bubble training material, ‘Communicating Difficult Messages’, which is available from


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