« The Sherpa Journal

Tackling the Dreaded Conversation

You know the one. It’s the difficult conversation you need to have with an employee who isn’t doing the job, or causing a problem, or doesn’t play well with others. The one that keeps you up at night and causes your stomach to feel like the butterflies inside you are learning the Latin rhumba. The number of excuses you’ve come up with to evade the issue is a testament to your creativity.

The longer you wait, the worse it gets

That perfect set of circumstances that you’re waiting for is simply not going to happen. And you know that the longer you wait, the worse things get and the more difficult the issue becomes to address. So instead of procrastinating and suffering, have the conversation!  The key is to prepare in 3 separate steps.

1.  Prepare yourself emotionally.

  • Draw on your emotional intelligence to become self aware of how you’re feeling.  Understanding your tendencies, what pushes your buttons and why, will help keep you from doing and saying things you’ll later regret. Don’t have the conversation when you’re rushed, upset, or unprepared for it.
  • Ignore the assumptions you’re making and stories you’re telling yourself about WHY the person is behaving the way they are. People make up scenarios from their own perspective and that frequently leads  to false conclusions before the meeting has even started. Those pre-conceived ideas rarely lead to a good outcome.  After all, if the person you’re talking to  is a reasonable, rational, well-meaning person in general, than there must be something causing them take the actions they’ve taken. A common error is to assume people do what they do because of a flawed personality as opposed to the situation they’re in (she gets angry at people because she has a bad temper).
  • Make a conscious decision to control body language because the body will convey more than 50% of the message. The employee will read the body language at the very beginning of the conversation, so decide in advance what you want to convey and how best to demonstrate that message with your body.  Without advance planning, body language is reflective and can torpedo the discussion without warning.

2. Gather data.

One of the biggest mistakes executives make is to go into a difficult conversation with an employee armed with either too little data or incorrect data. This leads to defensiveness, emotional arguments, and a loss of credibility. Do the homework that can make a difference between an explosive and damaging conversation, and one that is effective and builds the relationship.

3. Prepare for the conversation itself.

Once you know the key things that need to be said and have a format for organizing them, things become easier. Don’t fall for the myths that bad news needs to be coupled with good news, or that small talk is a good lead-in, or that the employee need a host of examples to “prove” your  point.

Susan Scott, an internationally recognized leader in skillful dialog and author of the book Fierce Conversations, recommends the following 7 steps to open the conversation:

1. Name the issue.

Be very clear about what the central issue is.  ”I want to talk to you about the effect your harsh language is having on the staff.”

2. Select a specific example.

It’s important to illustrate the behavior or situation you want changed.

3. Describe your emotions about the issue.

That will make the issue more personal.  ”I’m worried/concerned/upset.”

4. Clarify what is at stake.

Why is this issue important and worth talking about?  ”Your violation of a core company value sends a strong message that we don’t consider our values important and that they don’t make a difference.”

5. Identify your contribution to the problem.

This is a brief and honest acknowledgement of what role you may have had in creating the situation.  ”I should have talked to you about this the first time I observed it.”

6. Indicate your wish to resolve the issue.

This communicates good intent on your part . “I want to resolve this so that it does not ever occur again.”

7. Invite the other person to respond.

“What do you think is going on from your perspective?”

Once the conversation has been opened in this clear and concise manner, keep it focused on the specific named issue and the path to resolution. The goal is to help the other person want to take appropriate action. Help them  understand what needs to be done and why it’s important, then decide together what the next step and ultimate solution will be. Always make sure that follow-up is part of the plan so that the conversation does not have to take place again.

A results-focused organization must possess the skills and the courage to execute on difficult and uncomfortable conversations.  Otherwise, problems grow and the organization stagnates.

Use these three steps to stay on track and keep the forward momentum going.

More articles about , , , ,

Related Posts
  • Busting the Core Values Myth
  • The Accountability Conundrum
  • 2 comments so far

    • Bud Grant


      Jane, The road map above should be in every leaders arsenal of tools he or she uses to guide either a high performing team or an entire organization. No doubt all of us could look back in our careers and identify a situation where these steps would have been useful. There are times however that problem identification and understanding are not enough. I believe that the concept of "logical consequence" should also be employed. The individual has the right to clearly understand the consequences should behavior not change. That may be the toughest part of the conversation. Keep up the good work, your insight is most valuable.

    • Valerie Iravani


      Jane, great information. I've used this same process for years. I even created a one-page agenda to document the conversation for myself - and to put in employee files if need be. The agenda keeps me on track, no matter how I am feeling. The one reframe that has helped me to take immediate action on these difficult conversations is this: Everyone is on a journey of experience. We all make choices that take us on this experience - for our growth, for our self-awareness and development, and to learn about the world around us in all of its richness. Why would I deny this experience to another person by avoiding something that feels uncomfortable? I cannot paint the other person with my own emotional brush. I do not know how they will react or feel. However, the situation needs to be addressed, and if I don't do it, who will? So do not deny the other person this experience - no matter what they may or may not feel. This conversation may be the impetus they need to make significant changes in their own understanding of themselves. I hate feeling all 'out of whack' because I don't want to 'hurt' someone's feelings or look them in the eye and tell them they are doing something unacceptable - because I assume they will not accept the comments I will make. I do feel relieved, better, and like I can move forward toward improving the situation once the discussion is out in the open and taking place. Just breathe through it and take action. I understand why it may seem hard, but I don't understand why we, as managers, fail to do it at all. Thanks for the post and I hope everyone who reads it will use it.


    What do you think?

    * = required


    You can also leave a comment via Facebook


      Sherpa: a wise guide who has been there before; one who leads the way to your goals; a cheerleader along the path and a comforting voice during the storm.
    Jump to top