Difficult Conversations

Difficult Conversations in the L&D Universe

Everyone’s an Expert

L&D has a slightly co-dependent relationship with HR. If we’re in-house often we’re a part of a wider P&C team – and many of our colleagues have started their careers in more HR focused roles. HR often writes the book on ‘having difficult conversations’ – but sometimes it’s really hard to have them in HR/L&D spaces due to the heavy emotional investment our stakeholders have in the solutions proposed.

Because everyone’s an expert on training/learning when we’re developing a solution we are often put in situations where we have to have what can seem like incredibly difficult conversations with our stakeholders.

Those Sticky Situations

Situations where, depending on the stakeholder, we have to have these difficult conversations include;

  • A course isn’t the solution to everything dammit! While our understanding of how adult learning works has changed considerably over the past couple of decades, many stakeholders still have a training-centric view of how we can meet their needs. This isn’t always a recipe for success – if you never deliver on what they’re expecting (even when they haven’t declared what this is) then the relationship can suffer.
  • Sometimes a stakeholder’s own learning preferences can overshadow the learning solution for the target audience. If the decision maker is, for example, an avid reader, then their expectations of how much pre-reading is reasonable may not be a match for the learning group.
  • The cost of learning solutions can also be a bone of contention: e-learning systems and modules can cost significant money, while longer term they work out cheaper they still can’t be used as the whole solution.

The most important step for getting this right? Find out what they want – what they really want – at the beginning. Often they won’t know, but it’s your expertise that will help draw out the real drivers, which I’ve found are rarely the ‘objectives’ listed in your initial discussion.

Mitigating ‘Difficult Conversations’ During the Project

When your stakeholders are coming to you with pre-conceptions about your area of expertise and passion:


  • Take every opportunity to educate
    • Invite them to relevant events
    • Demonstrate the level of your expertise
    • Learn with them
  • Recognise their area of expertise
  • Offer possible solutions rather than just stating problems
  • Don’t be afraid of saying “I don’t know” and then finding out
  • Include them on the journey


  • Explain to them just how wrong they are (however tempting)
  • Push a solution they don’t want at them
  • Give them a solution where they don’t understand how you’re meeting their needs.

Like any potentially difficult conversations in business, it becomes easier if you know what the other party is wanting and how they expect this to happen. Often in L&D we have to persuade people that their ‘how to get there’ isn’t the right/only way… but it’s easier to do that if you really understand what their expectations and needs are at the beginning.

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