6 ways to manage difficult conversations

Tips for Dealing with Problem Employees

No one could believe it when RadioShack laid off hundreds of employees over email. But the sentiment behind that move is a common one.

Most people dislike delivering bad news in person and will find any way to avoid it. Indeed, it’s difficult to meet with someone you care about and give them a message that’s likely to disappoint, upset or hurt them.

The good news is, having difficult conversations can actually build trust in a relationship when managed the right way. To turn these communication challenges into opportunities, keep these six tips in mind.

1. Don’t cloud the issue

Failing to be candid with others is one of the biggest reasons why people ultimately leave companies. When we think we are doing the right things, we keep doing them. When key messages are embedded or “sandwiched” into larger messages, they get lost, which makes it easy to discount them or treat them as less important.

Case in point: Two years ago, I encountered a company chairman who needed to deliver a difficult message to the company’s leader. The message was, if the leader didn’t raise her team’s performance, she would be asked to leave the company. Rather than communicate that message directly, the chairman wrote a six-page report that was 98 percent focused on positive feedback. Embedded in the report was a brief statement (2-3 sentences) from the chairman about how the leader needed to achieve a higher level of performance. While coaching the leader, I asked her what this report communicated to her and how she would respond. She said she was doing everything right and was on track for her bonus.

2. Be candid and caring

People care about outcomes, but they care even more about the processes that produce those outcomes. Employees want to know where they stand and why. If there is a difficult message that employees need to hear, tell them the truth rather than a watered down or clouded version of it.

Candor supersedes fluff in situations where truth is a necessary medicine. It’s a reality of life that, sometimes, we need to tell people that they’ve failed, are about to be fired or didn’t make the cut. We do more harm to an individual if we try to soft-pedal our way through a difficult conversation. When a person delivers news to someone in a candid and caring way, the recipient is more open to building trust with the messenger.

3. Set the context upfront

Every difficult message carries some dynamics that are unique to the situation. However, one common variable is the relationships involved. To preserve or sustain your relationships, set the context of the situation upfront. Let people know that sharing this message may be difficult for both of you and that you care about them.

Imagine, for example, that your company has failed to make its quarterly numbers because of a product-launch delay, and thus your stock price, product deliveries and employee bonuses have decreased. To communicate this news to the stakeholders involved — investors, customers or employees — start by setting the context. Identify the areas impacted and take responsibility for the situation. Ask people to accept your apology, explain your turnaround strategy and ask for the team’s ongoing support.

4. Meet face-to-face

Have difficult conversations in person whenever you can. When you talk with someone face-to-face, it primes the way for an honest and caring exchange. Seeing a person express care and concern for the other person’s wellbeing helps build trust and openness between both parties.

5. Redirect attention to positive outcomes

Most people feel shame and embarrassment when something goes wrong. When discussing these situations, reframe the conversation so it’s less about criticizing what employees have done and more about what can be done to improve their development. Redirect their attention so they approach the situation as an opportunity for positive change and growth. Help them to see this as a chance to gain something better than before.

6. Be open

Fear closes down conversations. When the boss is afraid to talk, it amplifies employees’ fears about the implications of the situation. To avoid this, engage in an open discussion about the news and its impact. People often say that when a leader is open in these situations, it makes the difficult news palatable and easier to accept. Having an open dialogue may also reveal new ways to handle or solve the problem.

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  1. Jody Nyenhuis

    April 25, 2016 at 9:39 am

    Difficult situations are part of life, an important part of growth. Those we work with cannot improve on that which they are unaware of.

  2. Mathew Heggem

    May 5, 2016 at 6:00 pm

    Great article and a testament to the importance of hiring people who are aligned with your values; because, it’s very difficult to have a productive, authentic, and open conversation if the other person cannot hear what you are saying. In order for this type of an experience to work, you need to know who you are and what you value, so that you can be true in your leadership style – and be compassionate for al stakeholders in difficult conversations. Love this!


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