Close this search box.
Female manager effectively navigating a difficult conversation with her female employee

Navigating Difficult Conversations: Communication Skills for Women in Leadership Roles

As a woman in a leadership position, you’ll inevitably encounter difficult conversations that you must guide. Whether it’s providing feedback to a colleague or making the tough decision to let someone go, strong communication skills are crucial for being an assertive and empathetic leader.

Navigating these challenging conversations can be particularly daunting for women in leadership roles due to unfair expectations and prevailing stereotypes. If you’re doubting yourself, consider a 2019 report by the Harvard Business Review that found that women outperformed men in 17 out of 19 leadership capabilities, including communication skills. With the right skills, you won’t need to dread the prospect of engaging in difficult conversations.

In this article, we’ll explore essential communication skills that can empower you to navigate tough conversations with confidence and finesse.

Be prepared

Before entering a challenging conversation, take the time to prepare. Identify the main issues you want to address and consider possible solutions. By being well-prepared, you’ll feel more confident in expressing your perspective and resolving the issue at hand.

Focus on the issue, not the person

When discussing a sensitive topic, it’s crucial to focus on the issue itself rather than attacking the person involved. This helps to prevent defensiveness and promotes a more productive conversation. Be objective and avoid making personal accusations or judgments.

For example, imagine you’re discussing a missed deadline with a team member. Instead of saying, “You’re always procrastinating and causing us to miss deadlines,” focus on the issue by saying, “The missed deadline has impacted our project timeline. Let’s discuss what happened and how we can improve our process moving forward.”

In this example, the focus remains on the missed deadline, rather than criticizing the team member personally. By addressing the issue without making personal accusations or judgments, you create a more productive environment for discussing the problem and finding solutions together.

Use “I” statements

Using “I” statements allows you to express your feelings and thoughts without placing blame on the other person. This technique can help you communicate your perspective more effectively and foster a sense of mutual understanding. For example, say “I feel concerned about the project deadline” instead of “You’re not doing enough to meet the deadline.”

Be assertive

Assertiveness is an essential skill for effective communication. However, women are often caught between conflicting expectations. They must be assertive to be seen as competent leaders, but risk being labeled as aggressive if they’re too assertive.

The double-bind theory highlights the unique challenge women face in being assertive without being perceived negatively. To navigate this challenge, focus on using clear and concise language. When appropriate, demonstrate empathy and understanding toward the other person’s perspective as well.

Additionally, practice active listening and validate the other person’s feelings. These strategies can help you come across as assertive without crossing the line into “aggressiveness.”

Listen actively

Active listening is a critical skill for navigating difficult conversations. Ask open-ended questions and repeat the other person’s statements to ensure understanding. Verbal affirmations show that you’re listening and create an atmosphere of trust and collaboration.

Stay calm and composed

Maintaining your composure during a challenging conversation is essential for effective communication. Take deep breaths, speak slowly and calmly, and maintain a neutral tone of voice. By staying composed, you’ll be better equipped to express your thoughts clearly and navigate the conversation more effectively.

Don’t be afraid to take a pause, either. Whether a few seconds or a few minute break, this can allow both you and the person you’re speaking with to collect your thoughts and approach the conversation with a refreshed perspective. Pausing also gives you the chance to consider your response carefully, ensuring that your message is conveyed accurately and respectfully. 

Seek common ground

When resolving conflicts, try to find common ground between your perspective and the other person’s. For example, imagine you and a coworker have different ideas about how to approach a new marketing campaign. You prefer a traditional approach, while your coworker wants to try something more innovative. The common ground here could be the shared goal of increasing the company’s brand awareness and boosting sales. By identifying shared goals like this, you can foster a sense of collaboration. This allows you to work together to find a solution that combines the best aspects of both approaches.

By developing these communication skills, you’ll be better equipped to navigate difficult conversations with confidence. Remember that effective communication is an ongoing process, and practice makes perfect. Keep honing your skills, and you’ll become a more effective and empathetic leader.


The newsletter for ambitious women in marketing.

Marketing news to elevate your career – plus an inspiring interview – delivered to your inbox weekly, for free.