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3 Core Elements to Navigate Difficult Workplace Conversations

By Nico Anwandter, Assistant General Counsel & HR Consultant

Workplace concerns are management concerns. It is up to managers to take the steps necessary to correct them, even if this leads to uncomfortable conversations with team members. 

The success of a manager’s efforts will depend on how those conversations end: Does the employee understand what needs to improve and how, or are they left confused but reluctant to admit a lack of understanding?  Do they walk away from the conversation motivated to make the necessary course correction, or do they feel frustrated and disrespected? 

To achieve optimal results from difficult conversations, managers should understand the core elements of effective communication.  In its simplest terms, effective communication means being understood and understanding others.  Communication should be:

  • Informative – clear, forthcoming, and concrete;
  • Positive – courteous and considerate, focusing on the exchange of ideas and information to improve relationships and interactions on the job;
  • Interactive – an opportunity for both parties to speak and listen, to share and learn; and
  • Productive – identifying, conveying, and understanding relevant goals, as well as the tools to achieve them.  

By understanding three core elements of effective communication and employing them with the following strategies, managers can greatly increase the odds that their message is heard as intended during difficult conversations.

1. Cultivation

It’s critical to develop a rapport with staff and lay a foundation where they feel appreciated and heard.  By being courteous and considerate, you will develop goodwill. Think of goodwill like an insurance policy—you make small investments over time, so a hard conversation is more likely to be received well if ever necessary. 

Strategies to cultivate trust and respect among staff:

  • Recognize employee achievements and improvements—one-on-one as well as among peers where appropriate.
  • Encourage constructive feedback—make it a two-way street and don’t take anything personally.
  • Ensure new employees receive adequate training, and touch base with them afterwards to determine if they would benefit from further assistance—e.g. shadowing a peer, clarification on something from the training, etc.
  • Start now.

2. Preparation

When an issue arises that calls for a coaching, counseling, or a write-up, managers should frame the conversation as positively as possible.   Take the perspective of a coach, not a critic.  The purpose is not to shame your employee.  The company has seen value and potential in this employee and has made an investment in their success.   The conversation is a chance to identify opportunities for growth and improvement that you want to see succeed. 

Strategies to prepare for the conversation:

  • Be clear with yourself on what you hope to communicate—focus on behavior, job skills, and goals for the future, not on personal characteristics.  Consider jotting down bullets.
  • Know your listener—not everybody will respond to feedback the same way.  Consider using the “sandwich” approach (i.e. compliment, constructive criticism, compliment), or explaining why the particular issue is important and how it affects the business or other people.  What part of the message will resonate with them the most? 
  • Choose the right timing—when will the employee be able and willing to give you their full attention?  Avoid, for example, having the conversation towards the end of their shift.  As a general rule, plan to have the conversation in person, with adequate time for a meaningful dialogue.

3. Conversation

A difficult conversation about work performance is especially important to have in person because it invites a dialogue—an opportunity for the listener to be heard, seek clarification where needed, and confirm their understanding of the feedback and strategy moving forward.  It also presents an opportunity to read the temperature of the conversation with the employee’s tone and body language, and to control or adjust the temperature of the conversation with your own.

Strategies to ensure your message is heard:

  • Be direct, be specific, and use examples where appropriate.  Don’t drag out or muddy the message with vague or extraneous information.
  • Focus on being considerate and optimistic about finding a solution.
  • Be an active listener.  Keep an open mind and allow the employee to offer their perspective.  Focus on what the employee has to say rather than your prepared agenda.  Don’t interrupt.
  • Be mindful of your tone and body language.  Avoid pencil-tapping, arm-crossing, poor eye contact, finger-pointing, etc.

Using these principles and strategies, managers have the best chance to effectively communicate with their staff on challenges to overcome.