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How to have a difficult conversation

Do you find it challenging to hold difficult conversations with your employees?

January 27, 2021

Two woman discussing new strategy

Many managers find it difficult to have conversations with their people that have the potential to lead to confrontation. It’s something that no one looks forward to, but it has to be done to ensure the team, the organisation and the customers are receiving the level of service they deserve.

A difficult conversation may require you to confront unacceptable behaviour, low productivity or effort, or discuss personal issues with a colleague, going beyond the usual work conversations. Use the framework below to better enable you to navigate these challenging conversations.

Preparing for a difficult conversation...

Before you conduct a difficult conversation, it’s important that you prepare for it. Think about your own perspective on the issue and make notes so you can keep the conversation on track.

Consider the following questions during your preparation:

What is the purpose? Determine and write down the ideal outcome you would like to achieve. This will help you to enter the conversation with a clear purpose.

Do you have an emotional attachment? Consider whether you have an emotional attachment to the situation. If you do, consider bringing a neutral colleague into the conversation to help mediate it.

How might you influence the conversation? Did you know that your own attitude towards the situation, as well as your perception of it, can influence the conversation? If you have been dreading the conversation or thinking it will be difficult you may struggle to conduct it effectively.

What might the person be thinking? It’s vital that you consider the other person. Are they fully aware of the problem? What might be an ideal outcome from their perspective? Write down some questions you could draw on to explore the issue from the other person’s perspective.

Before the meeting begins...

Once you have prepared your plan for the difficult conversation, the next step is to prepare the meeting itself. Reserve a private meeting room which the employee will be comfortable in, provide a glass of water and make sure there are tissues available (just in case). Most importantly make sure you are in the right state of mind:

  • Be ready to listen and be open to what the person may have to say.
  • Review your plan and, if necessary, practise your part of the conversation either in your mind or with someone you can trust.

The steps in a good feedback conversation...

You can use the following steps to open a difficult conversation and steer it in a collaborative direction.

  1. Open the conversation as gently as possible. Provide the reason for the meeting – feedback from a customer or co-worker, missed deadlines, etc.
  2. Ask for the employee’s insights into the problem. Discuss the response to find common ground and common goals.
  3. Use a range of constructive questions to identify the issues, determine the causes and develop a suitable outcome. Always reflect and paraphrase what they are saying to ensure you understand.
  4. Ask the employee to come up with a potential solution, and then work on refining it together.
  5. Once again, use insightful questions to help them come up with a suitable solution. If they are able to define the solution, then they are more likely to own it and follow through.
  6. End the conversion with clear action steps that you both understand and agree to.

Dealing with negative responses...

It is quite common that when you begin the conversation and raise the issues, you will come up against a negative response.

When emotions are high, people do not have as much capacity for calm reasoning and logic. It is important that you address the emotions first, so the employee can then move on to more logical, reasoned thinking.

  • Let the employee tell his or her story – you may gain a new perspective on the apparently negative behaviour or incident.
  • Paraphrase and reflect back what you have heard.
  • When the employee feels heard and understood, you’ll have a better chance of moving to a collaborative discussion.
  • Be tough on the problem, not the person.

Creating lasting change...

Having that first difficult conversation is only the beginning. The employee needs time to consider the conversation and implement the action steps you agreed together. To ensure there is lasting, positive change we recommend you:

  • Acknowledge the positive difference that is being made by the person.
  • Monitor and track the action items.
  • Set a timeframe for subsequent reviews and be specific about what has to change and how it will be measured.
  • Gain the person’s agreement and commitment.