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3 Tips to Handle Tough Conversations

By Lauren Kottwitz

Photo by Joshua Ness via Unsplash

Tough conversations are a necessary and sometimes unpleasant part of being a manager. Sometimes you have to talk to someone about their performance or attendance. You may need to turn down an employee’s idea, or deny a raise. You might have to terminate someone. It can cause a lot of anxiety. As with anything, practice helps – but what if you’re a first time people leader, suddenly faced with having a difficult discussion with an employee? Here are three tips for ensuring those conversations are productive and well-received.

Make a Plan

  • Whether telling someone they will not be receiving a raise or disciplining them for excessive attendance issues, these are not the kind of things you want to just blurt out over the water cooler. Think about what you need to say and how you will say it, how they might react, and the questions they may have for you. Make a list of your points so you stay on-topic and a list of answers to their possible questions. If you can, practice actually saying the words out loud. Make sure you are delivering the news using the appropriate tone, that you aren’t speaking too quickly, and that your points are really being made. Staying calm and composed is much easier when you’re prepared.

Be a Human…and a Robot

  • Empathy is an important thing. Coming to these conversations with the understanding that a human being is at the other end of it is essential to delivering hard news. Understand that people process negative information in various ways – be prepared to give them time to be emotional, offer tissue if they are crying, answer their questions, and ask if you can move forward. Unless they are being terminated, remind them that you are having this conversation because you want them to succeed and are committed to helping them improve from here.

  • While you may feel for the employee, it is imperative that you remain detached from the emotional side of the conversation. If you fail to put up that wall, you risk being unclear about the purpose of the discussion. Your first objective is to get the message across clearly to them. Keep in mind that they are receiving the bad news, not you. Being stoic allows them to focus on processing their emotions. This is especially important when it is an employee with whom you have a close relationship – in this moment, you are not their friend, you are their manager.

Have Solutions at Hand

  • Anyone can point out a problem. A good manager highlights a problem and offers a solution or plan of action to address it. If an employee isn’t getting a raise, be specific and clear about the why, and tell them what they can do to earn that raise. Offering suggestions for improvement leave the employee feeling positive and with a sense of purpose. These are opportunities to show them that you are invested in their future. If they are being terminated, you can prepare helpful suggestions for more success in their next venture.

The key is balancing the positive with the negative. There is no way to avoid coming across these situations when you are in a leadership position – but with the right set of tools, you can make them productive instead of unpleasant.


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