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How Avoiding Difficult Conversations at Work is Costing UK Businesses More Than Just Words

Updated: Jan 10

Navigating conversations with our colleagues can be a bit tricky at times. Surprisingly, studies indicate that nearly 69% of us feel a twinge of unease when approaching team discussions, and when the topic gets tough that unease can amplify. A lot of this hesitation comes from the uncertainty of how our message might land. As a result, many opt to delay or even sidestep these essential chats. However, sidestepping often complicates matters, sometimes pulling others into a snowballing issue. It's evident that a bit of guidance and training could go a long way in helping us confidently handle these pivotal conversations and maintain open, effective communication.

A recent study in 2022 conducted in the UK revealed that only 40% of employees received formal training in either conflict resolution or handling difficult conversations, and of those only 30% actually felt adequately prepared through their training to handle those tough conversations with their team members. This is costing UK businesses an estimated £28.5 billion per year due to poor communication with higher rates of employee turnover and increased levels of sickness in our team members.

To create a solution, we first need to recognise where the problem is and figure out the triggers associated with it. I have assembled a list of several well-established reasons why people often avoid having a difficult conversation with a colleague at work, along with the impact they have on individuals and the workplace:


Fear of Conflict: Many individuals avoid difficult conversations due to a fear of conflict. They worry that bringing up sensitive issues might lead to arguments or tension. This fear often stems from a lack of confidence in handling conflict constructively.

  • Impact on Individuals: This avoidance can lead to increased stress and anxiety, as unaddressed issues continue to weigh on the person's mind.

  • Impact on the Workplace: Avoidance of conflict can result in unresolved issues, which can escalate over time, potentially leading to a toxic work environment.

Concern About Damaging Relationships: People often worry that a difficult conversation could harm their relationship with a colleague or supervisor. This is particularly true in cultures or environments where harmony is highly valued.

  • Impact on Individuals: Employees may feel isolated or unsupported, which can lead to decreased job satisfaction and morale.

  • Impact on the Workplace: The lack of open communication can hinder teamwork and collaboration, negatively affecting productivity and innovation.

Lack of Skills and Confidence: Many individuals simply don’t feel equipped to handle difficult conversations effectively. They might lack the necessary communication skills or confidence to address sensitive topics.

  • Impact on Individuals: This can lead to feelings of incompetence or inadequacy, further eroding self-confidence.

  • Impact on the Workplace: When employees are not empowered to communicate effectively, it can lead to a culture of avoidance, where problems are swept under the rug rather than addressed.

Perceived Power Imbalances: In some cases, employees might avoid difficult conversations with superiors due to perceived power imbalances. They may fear repercussions or feel that their concerns will not be taken seriously.

  • Impact on Individuals: This can lead to a sense of helplessness and resignation, impacting an individual’s engagement and willingness to contribute.

  • Impact on the Workplace: Power imbalances can stifle honest feedback and critical discussions, impeding organisational growth and adaptability.

Uncertainty About Outcomes: Uncertainty about how the conversation will unfold and what the outcomes will be is another common reason for avoidance. This includes fear of the unknown and worry about potential negative consequences.

  • Impact on Individuals: This uncertainty can be paralysing, leading to procrastination and ongoing stress.

  • Impact on the Workplace: Innovation and problem-solving suffer in environments where difficult conversations are avoided, as issues remain unresolved.


The good news is that it isn’t all doom and gloom, there are solutions out there to help you and your organisations master difficult conversations. By encouraging open and honest communication in the workplace, and providing employees with the tools and effective training to handle difficult conversations, we can help mitigate these issues. It's essential for organisations to create a culture where feedback is valued, and difficult conversations are seen as opportunities for growth and improvement, rather than threats.

You can start here... I have a free downloadable “Mastering difficult conversations toolkit” that will help you improve your communication skills and generate better results immediately. Simply subscribe to receive it at

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