Stepping Boldly Into Tough Conversations

Tough conversations are by definition – well – tough.  Our natural tendency is to avoid them because of personal discomfort, concern that the conversation won’t go well or fear that the situation might get worse.

The challenge with avoidance is that the problem will likely get bigger the longer you wait to address it. Imagine your issue is a monster. It starts out tiny and relatively harmless. It is easy to ignore or brush it to the side.  You might even shake your head and smile at it because although it isn’t behaving the way it should, its little and cute and easy to indulge. Over time, the monster grows, and the small irritation is now extremely disruptive.  Your monster is now taking a lot of energy to manage as people spend time venting frustration because it is now getting in the way of operational excellence.

You can manage the disruption a monster can cause by identifying them quickly and getting rid of them while they are easy to handle. Their growth is fueled by two things: emotions and indirect communication.  The longer the situation goes unaddressed emotions elevate, triangulation occurs and the monster will grow.

Keep in mind is that no one likes these types of conversations, but you can get better at them with preparation.  Spending the time to prepare for a conversation that may have perceived elevated risk will help reduce the likelihood that emotions will take over and cause the issue to become more complex.


To prepare, follow these 5 steps:

  • Step One: Clearly identify the root of the issue.  To identify the root of the concern, start by separating emotion from facts.  When how you feel becomes the center of the issue, it is hard to find resolution.  Let’s look at an example that many operations face. You may have a family member who consistently shows up late for work. The behavior at the beginning may annoy people and cause some grumbling but it doesn’t take up a lot of time and people quickly lose interest and get down to business. Over time, this behavior may start to affect people’s attitude, their behavior, and you may start to see that a tremendous amount of time is being spent talking about the person and may also lead to opinions being formed about their contribution and, perhaps, their commitment. It is easy to look at a situation like this and come to the conclusion that the problem is the family member is not coming to work on time. I would challenge you to look at it in a slightly different way. Rather than blaming the person, could the root issue be that expectations have not been communicated or that there is no written policy for when the workday starts?  When you begin to look beyond a person and their behavior you will find new opportunities to analyze your business and began to future proof it for a time when you may have more employees or extended family working together.
  • Step Two: Clarify the Outcome. Many people make the mistake of starting a conversation when they are frustrated. For a tough conversation to have a satisfactory outcome it is important to begin with the end in mind and to identify an outcome that will feel like a win to both parties. In our example of the family member who was coming late to work, coming to work on time may not feel like a win to them. It is important to spend time to look beyond the surface confusion to find an outcome that is beneficial to both parties.  In other words, link the outcome you want to something that they want.
  • Step Three: Outline your message. When you feel a conversation may be difficult it is important to practice. Write down your key talking points and practice saying them out loud so that they come out in a calm professional way. If you feel that the conversation may get heated, make sure that you take your notes into the conversation with you so that you can stay on point and don’t revert into emotion. Again, remember to focus on facts rather than how you feel.
  • Step Four: Select the stage.  Most people respond negatively when they feel as though they are being attacked or are caught off guard. It is important to find a time where you can focus on the conversation and a location where the person you are talking to feels at ease. It is also important to avoid having conversations in the heat of the moment or when emotions are high. Always remember that when emotions are high intelligence tends to be low.
  • Step Five: Come to agreement. We have a tendency to rush into a tough conversation, blurt out what we want to say very quickly, and then once we have said it we make the mistake of assuming that the other person agrees with our solution. If we have prepared our outcome in Step 2 correctly, we should be in a position to negotiate an agreement that is a win for both parties. Once you are certain that an agreement has been reached, it should be documented.  Documentation can be as simple as sending out an email after the conversation recapping the discussion and what was agreed. This is a very important step to ensure that you have a benchmark to refer to if the agreement is violated and to hold both parties accountable for long term success.

An important thing to remember as you begin to utilize these five steps is to have patience. If a conversation derails, don’t be afraid to pause and take a break. It is better to discontinue a conversation before emotions get out of control then to push through and elevate the situation further.  As your team begins to see that they can have a discussion without emotions taking control, you will find that issues will be brought to the table sooner and you will have fewer monsters to slay.

Article by Rena Striegel

Read the article on Progressive Forage HERE.