Being Brave,  HR,  Leadership

The Art of Difficult Conversations: How To Have Successful Conversations About Changing Employee Behaviour

     Why is it that some conversations we have with our employees are easier than others? What makes a conversation difficult? When I posed this question to several of my clients who manage teams of three or more people, I got a narrow range of answers.

Generally speaking, it seems that conversations are difficult when:

  • They communicate a negative emotion such as disappointment, dissatisfaction, or frustration
  • They show someone something about their behaviour or performance that they are not aware of and may not agree with
  • The person you are speaking to will (or may feel s/he will) have to explain her/himself
  • When you don’t believe in what you are communicating

Not surprisingly, most managers find it much easier to praise, reward and compliment an employee than to correct, question, or tell an employee that s/he is not doing something well. This is not because most managers are only every thinking positive and complimentary things about their employees. It is because when a manager is communicating a message that is of a praising or complimentary nature, this typically will not challenge an employee’s view about himself and it will likely trigger a positive emotion (pride, joy, happiness) which is much more pleasurable and therefore easier to deal with than a negative emotion.

According to a Stitt Feld Handy Group study, difficult conversations have their roots in three different sources. These problematic sources are based on the way an employee feels when s/he is asked to explain what happened, forced to experience strong emotions, or asked to see him/herself in a way that is different from the way s/he normally sees him/herself.  No matter what the intent of the conversation, if an employee feels required to justify her/his actions,  forced into an emotionally charged head space, or confronted by an image of him/herself that s/he is not familiar with, there is a high probability of the conversation becoming difficult. 

Managers, who have had conversations with employees in the past which became heated, awkward, frustrating or unproductive, know well the uncomfortable experience of a difficult conversation and are understandably hesitant to open conversations which they think could possibly go badly. Unfortunately, when we ignore poor, ineffective or inappropriate behaviour it can affect the entire team’s morale and performance. So, when it comes to an employee who is not performing well, a manager must find ways to provide feedback that the under performing employee will take in. This will lead to greater success for the individual employee, the team, and the organization.

Here are some ways to ensure your feedback will be taken in.

Address Your Mindset:

  • Before you start, take the time to understand how you feel about the situation, your feelings about what is happening will come through to your employee and have a HUGE impact on how s/he responds to you.
  • Re-frame how you feel about the conversation itself. If you go into the conversation thinking of it as difficult, you will project this and your employee will mirror you. If you go into the conversation thinking that it is an opportunity to fix something, your employee is more likely to pick up on this and respond in a better way.

Get Clear:

  • Understand the issues you are addressing by answering these questions:
    • What exactly is the behaviour that is causing the issue?
    • What is the impact this behaviour is having on you, the team, or the organization? 
  • Know the goal of the conversation
    • What are the desired outcomes?
    • What are the non-negotiables?

Plan But Don’t Script:

  • It really helps to plan what you are going to say by jotting down notes and key points before your conversation.
  • Drafting a script however – is a waste of time! It is unlikely that the conversation will go according to your plan.
  • The purpose of the notes and key points is so that you raise all of the points you need to raise and to provide you with a simple, clear, direct, and neutral language to use in a variety or ways.
  • Talk it out with someone you trust and who can maintain confidentiality.
  • Consciously plan the time and location of the conversation.

Start Off Well:

  • Take a moment before beginning to centre yourself and to breathe, this will make for a calmer and more supportive start to your conversation and also help to keep you calm through the conversation.
  • Begin the conversation clearly and directly, explaining why you are there and what your expectations for the conversation are.
  • SBI Model is an effective tool.

Managing Yourself:

  • Do not let your emotions overpower you.
  • Address sarcasm, stalling and accusing directly, calmly, and honestly.
  • Disarm ploys by labeling the observed behaviour directly.
  • Be compassionate.
    • It is not necessary to be friendly but you should use empathy to respond in a courageous, honest, and fair way.
  • Do not emote or ask your employee to have sympathy for you!
  • Be comfortable with silence.
  • Be consistent in your feedback.
  • Acknowledge your employee’s perspective.
  • Avoid a my-way-or-the-highway attitude.
  • Show your employee that you care by hearing what s/he thinks is the issue and addressing that honestly.
  • Slow down and listen.
    • Manage tension by slowing the pace of the conversation; this keeps emotions even and allows you time to find the right words.
    • Listening carefully and ensure you respond to the feedback and questions your employee is providing.

End Up Well:

  • Ensure you and your employee clearly understand the next steps and who is accountable for what.
  • Ensure your employee has the support s/he needs to be successful (or understands how s/he is going to get this support).
  • Take time to reflect on the conversation.
  • What went well? What will you do differently next time?

Finally, do not go this alone. Finding a coach, mentor, or even an appropriate colleague that you can talk through the situation and upcoming conversation with is invaluable.* So many times I have cracked what felt like an impossible situation open by having a ten minute conversation with my coach. I have seen my clients go from sleepless nights worrying about an upcoming meeting they are having with an employee to realizing that they were in control and could totally handle the situation after a mere 20 minutes. Don’t get stuck in a negative and limiting thought pattern. These conversations are not easy but handling them well is one of the great joys of leading of people. Handled well these conversations are an opportunity to help your employees grow and to show that you care. Get out there and help your people be who they are, at their best!!

Good luck with your “not-so-difficult” conversations. Let me know how it’s going and how I can help!



*I cannot stress enough the need to be cognizant of the confines of confidentiality. Respect your employees and protect yourself by ensuring that you do not share confidential information inappropriately.


Using emotional intelligence, mindfulness, and deep listening practices Akiko offers caring and practical support to free yourself from the toxic, punishing thoughts and emotions that are keeping you stuck, so you can have better relationships with yourself, other people, and to the work you do.

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