Human Resources News & Insights

Helping your managers handle those ‘difficult conversations’

Many managers dread having those “difficult conversations” with employees because, well, they’re difficult. Here’s some advice that could help them navigate these unfamiliar waters.

Of course, every situation is different, and every conversation will be a little bit different. Still, by sticking with some do’s and don’ts, managers can control the conversation and achieve their objective — a substantial change in an employee’s performance or behavior.

A checklist to pass along to your supervisory personnel:


  • Do be specific about what you want. The mistake some managers make when shooting for a goal is to use general terms.
    Example: A manager says, “You’re too laid-back. I want you to be more aggressive and proactive.” Nice, safe terms, but the employee ends up thinking, “What’s that mean?”
    Instead, the manager could say, “I want you to call five ex-customers a week, find out why they left us and report back to me on what they said.” That sets out clear behavior and goals.
  • Do let the employee rant – a little. Some people feel the need to blow off steam or maybe mount a defense, even a flimsy one, for their behavior. That’s OK. You don’t want them to feel like they’re on the witness stand and can’t ramble a little.
    If they think the point of the conversation is just so you can cross-examine them, that’ll just give them an excuse to throw up their defenses and refuse to cooperate.
    So let them go on for a while, and then steer the conversation back to the point – getting the results you want.
  • Do use “we.” Try to get across the idea that the issue is a problem for everyone concerned. That involves something as simple as saying, “We have a problem” or “We need to change.”
    Then the person on the other side of the desk realizes the behavior is important and affects everyone – but without finger-pointing.
    Focus on the problem, not the person.
    Bad example: “You’re too argumentative.”
    Better: “The continual arguments are hurting our productivity.”


  • Don’t continually use “you.” Putting all the responsibility on the employee is a conversational black hole that’s almost impossible to escape from.
    The use of “you” – as in “You didn’t finish the job on time” – is an invitation to a fight. Contrast that with: “We need to talk about why the job wasn’t finished on time.”
    No accusations, no blame. Just a conversation starter that works.
    Let’s admit here that at some point you are going to have to use “you”; after all, we are talking about a specific person causing a specific problem.
    Just be aware that there are alternatives to continually using “you” in a negative way that kills the conversation.
  • Don’t use “however” or “but.” Some managers think if they lead with a compliment, it’s then easier to wade slowly into the problem.
    A symptom of that thinking comes out in conversations that go something like: “You’ve done a pretty good job, but …” and then comes then the manager lowers the boom on the employee.
    People aren’t fooled by that approach, and in fact it often gets them angry and thinking, “She can never just say something positive.”
    Consider substituting “and” for “but” and “however.” You’ll see how much smoother and positive the conversation can be.
    Example: “You’ve done a pretty good job, and we need to talk about how to get back up to that level.”
  • Don’t feel as if you have to fill every silence. In an especially tense situation, you’ll be tempted to fill in every silent pause.
    Stay silent when there’s a lull in the conversation, and obligate the other person to fill in the silence. You’ll be surprised by the amount of information you get without even asking a question.
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