How to Navigate Difficult Conversations with Employees

Kate Conroy
November 18, 2022

No one likes to miss the mark. It can be even worse when you’re a manager and have to tell team members they missed the mark, especially if they don’t seem to realize it. These conversations can elicit bad feelings for all involved. Managers dread them and may avoid difficult conversations until the issue has become so big, they think the only solution is to terminate the employee rather than work through the problem.

The key to handling difficult conversations with employees is to keep an eye on your goal. What is the result you would like this conversation to have? This, combined with constant empathy for the employee, should help you navigate these conversations productively.

Potential Challenging Conversations

Challenging conversations can be lurking around many corners in the workplace. These tough conversations may be recurring, such as performance discussions with a struggling employee. Or they could be unexpected, like when a project has taken a wrong turn and you, as the manager, need to address it. Sometimes, you simply have to deliver bad news.

7 Tips on How to Navigate Difficult Conversations With Employees

How can a manager prepare to enter these conversations focused on the end goal with empathy for the employee? It’s so easy to get off course in the heat of the moment. Navigating difficult conversations becomes easier and more effective with the below tips:

1. Prepare Ahead of Time

Challenging conversations are work and just like any work, they usually go better if you go in with a plan. To be clear, a plan is different from a full-fledged script. Fully scripting a conversation can be tough because you can’t completely anticipate what the other person will say. Instead, focus on your goal and work backward.

  • What do you hope to accomplish?
  • What do you need to cover in your conversation to get to that accomplishment?
  • What actions need to be taken after the conversation to ensure a long-term result?

2. Transparency and Honesty Are Vital

It’s easy to shy away from transparency and honesty when you don’t want to hurt someone’s feelings, but the truth is that shying away is more damaging. Think about how you felt when someone avoided an honest conversation with you. Maybe you felt disrespected, belittled, or like the other person was being passive-aggressive. 

When you’re not honest and transparent in these conversations, it causes the other person to feel like they are being disrespected, belittled, or tricked. All of these feelings will trigger a defensive reaction which hinders your ability to accomplish your goals for the conversation.

3. Demonstrate Empathy and Care

Did you really think about a time when someone shied away from an honest conversation with you? Then you’ve already taken the first step here. Consider the employee’s perspective. How will they feel? How might they feel already about the situation you need to discuss? How can you have this conversation in a way that they feel valued and respected? Be prepared to demonstrate empathy and care throughout the conversation so the person across from you feels like you have considered the situation from their perspective.

4. Hear Out All Concerns

These are called difficult conversations for a reason, they are a two-way interaction. Plan for the employee to respond and want to contribute actively to the conversation. Hear out all of the concerns that they have. The employee may identify likely other factors at play you didn’t consider. The employee might not be on the same page as you about the topic at hand and you may need to provide clarification.

5. Keep a Cool Head

It’s easy to let our emotions take control of the conversation. In fact, they often do unless you intentionally make sure they don’t. Sometimes the emotions you feel are interpreted differently by those on the other side of the table. Allowing stress or other emotions to come through in your tone or body language may be misread as anger. Miscommunicating because your emotions get the best of you can shut down a conversation and prevent you from reaching your desired outcome.

6. Work Toward a Solution

Always orient yourself towards the future. Yes, you may need to explore the past to identify what needs to change for the future, but keep your goal at the forefront of the challenging conversation. With the solution in mind, you can tackle the conversation as a team, rather than a competition where one person wins and the other loses.

7. Be Sure to Follow Up

You did the hard part. You made it through the conversation. Don’t let your effort go to waste! Follow up in writing, summarizing your conversation, and turning the takeaways into action items. This will clear up any misunderstandings that might have occurred during your meeting, or misremembering of the conversation. It keeps both you and the other party accountable for the solution you landed on. 

Not all issues are resolved in one try. For more complex issues, you may need to schedule regular follow-up meetings. This helps you and the employee remain accountable for action items. 

How Our HR Consultants Can Help

It is not solely HR’s responsibility to have challenging conversations with employees. Those are often most effective when facilitated by the employee’s line manager. However, if you are struggling with employee relations, our team of experienced HR consultants can help! Whether it is building out performance goals that will help head off these conversations before they start, or coaching managers to become more comfortable and effective while having difficult conversations, we have your back! Contact Us to get started! 

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