Tough Conversations
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Are You Ready to Have Tough Conversations?

Avoiding a difficult conversation with an employee—or anyone else in your life—will only allow a problem to fester. Follow this framework to address the issue head on and get to a positive outcome.

By Carol Vernon

Difficult conversations are just that—difficult, and the stakes are often high. A lot depends on the outcomes of these discussions. We often go out of our way to avoid them, but it usually comes at a cost. At work, it may mean we don't ask for what we want, we avoid talking about accountability with our colleagues, or we don't provide our direct reports with the honest feedback they need to grow. Like many other things, there's skill and will involved here, and with some learning and practice, we can get better.

When you’re going into a high-stakes conversation, it’s important to identify the needs of the person you’re talking with, as opposed to simply identifying your own need. What do both of you need to get out of the conversation? How do you want to be perceived by this person? What will she hear between your words, what will she be listening for—and perhaps even be seeking confirmation on—and how will she get it from you?

Another important step before you talk is to question your “inner dialogue.” What assumptions are you making before you even begin? These can get in the way of having the real conversation.

When you’re ready to have the tough conversation—say, for example, you have to speak with an employee about a performance or discipline issue—the following framework can help you get to a positive outcome:

Listen. Ask questions so you fully understand the employee’s perspective. Interrupt only to summarize and ask clarifying questions.

Validate. Acknowledge the employee’s perspective, but don't necessarily agree. Say, for example, “It sounds like this issue is very important to you.”

Approach a tough conversation sincerely, and be committed to having it. Be clear on your objectives, and don't allow it to veer off course.

Express your position. Tell the employee what you want him to know. Advocate for your point of view without diminishing his.

Problem-solve. Brainstorm together how you can move forward. Build on small areas of agreement, and return to listening if the conversation becomes adversarial.

Confirm agreement. Determine next steps, including the best ways to for the two of you to check in later.

Approach a tough conversation sincerely, and be committed to having it. Be clear on your objectives, and don't allow it to veer off course. Use I vs. you language: Say, "I'm not sure I have all the information. Can you help me?" not "You didn't get me the information." Finally, don’t let it get personal. Manage your voice, emotions, and body language, know your triggers, and take a timeout if you need it.

High-stakes conversations that don’t start with clarity about needs and inner dialogue often are the ones we walk away from feeling dissatisfied. Conversations that meet mutual needs and challenge our assumptions lead to the best outcomes.

So, what difficult conversation do you need to have?

Carol Vernon is a certified executive coach and principal of Communication Matters. Email: [email protected]

Performance Management