How to have difficult conversations with your staff

Being the bearer of difficult news is the toughest job for any manager. Whether you are retrenching people or giving an honest no-holds-barred performance review, these conversations are regarded as one of the most difficult parts of any job.

"Listening is the number-one skill that managers have to pick up if they want to have tough conversations."
Leon Gettler, Veteran and highly regarded management journalist

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First you have to deal with the potential impact of the conversation on the other person. How defensive will they get? Will they get aggressive? Will they cry?

At the same time, while these conversations are often confidential, the manager knows word of the conversation may get out. Everyone is watching. What kind of signal is the manager sending everyone? A badly communicated conversation can affect productivity and morale.

An often acknowledged problem is many managers landed the job because they showed expertise in a particular area without necessarily having the people skills. They are simply not trained to have these sorts of conversations.

On the rare occasion they do it well, they're never praised. You just become the hate figure for the day. So how does one have a difficult conversation? What are the rules?


For performance issues, Massachusetts-based learning company MindEdge says it's first of all important to let the person know you want a constructive dialogue. It's about setting the scene, as much as possible, for an unemotional business-like exchange.

“Don't assume that the other party will automatically be receptive," MindEdge says. “You need to set the stage by starting in a pleasant and non-threatening way, stressing mutual goals."

Managers are advised to acknowledge the other person's point of view. This gives people a sense of permission to pursue difficult matters. They are also advised to avoid being judgemental and to focus on issues, not behaviour.

It's also important to keep emotions in check and watch for clues in the other person's body language. How are they sitting in their seat? What's their posture like? How much eye contact is there?

Jill Livesey, an executive coach and career coach at the Institute for Executive Coaching, says this means listening very carefully to what's being said. She says listening is the number-one skill managers have to pick up if they want to have tough conversations.

“When we coach skills for leaders, we teach them to listen and to allow there to be silence to give the other person a chance to think,'' Livesey says. “A lot of people are uncomfortable with silence and one of the core skills people learn here is to allow that silence and allow the person they are talking to engage their brain and come up with a thoughtful response.

“Listening is a really significant part of it. Listening to truly understand. Yes you are going in with an outcome in mind but you are not going in to drive someone down a particular path. You are going in to listen, to truly understand and ask good questions.

“It's about speaking less and listening more. Do that and you are more likely to end up at that outcome and take the person on board with you."

When managers take the time to learn the necessary skills for conversations, such as those the the Institute offers on coaching skills and conversation, it can open up dialogue beyond work encounters.

“Managers aren't necessarily queuing up because they don't know the value of it until they have done the course but we do often hear them say this hasn't just improved my relationship with my team, I listened to my partner last night,'' Livesey says.

She says the skills come from having lots of conversations. It's about getting lots of practice. The more the difficult conversations are undertaken, and handled correctly, the better you'll get.

“These are just foundational skills that we weren't taught when we were young,'' Livesey says. “Not everybody is skilled and it's something I think the more conscious we are of it and the immense value from having them well, the better you will be."

“People will often prepare to communicate to a room of 200 people and do a big presentation and they would prepare like crazy. But they could be having a one on one conversation that is critically important and they wouldn't necessarily put in the same level of preparation.


“It's not necessarily about getting rid of the emotions but check in on what they are and what these emotions are telling you," Livesey says. “Sometimes, it might be something that's quite important. “

Managers need to go in with a clear outcome in mind, she says, and work towards that.

Tim McLean, chief executive officer of lean manufacturing and project management company TXM Lean Solutions, says a communication plan is important for any difficult conversation.

“If you're going to make a change in a significant organisation," he says. “You need to spend some time thinking about what you want to communicate, how you are going to communicate it and who are you going to communicate it to."

It is important to anticipate where the other person will be coming from and most business leaders don't do that very well, McLean says.

“Part of that preparation is anticipating the kind of questions people will have,'' he says. “The other thing that happens is once you make an announcement like that, the mistake a lot of business leaders make is that they will go on talking about strategy and the big picture and international competition and world best practice and blah de blah de blah.

“The moment that they have said people will lose their jobs their audience stops listening. The audience is thinking what about my mortgage, what about my kids and holiday we were going to have. They stop listening to all the corporate palaver.

“So you need to keep it to the point and you need to move very quickly and have your management team prepared to talk to people individually about their individual circumstances.


McLean says the obvious question leaders will deal with is: am I going to lose my job?

“You answer will be in three categories: yes, no and maybe," he says. “The people who are in the category of no, you would want to make sure they know straight away that they will not lose their job.

“The people who will definitely lose their jobs, you need to communicate with them as soon as possible and start talking to them about their options and listening to them about what their concerns are.

“When a trauma like this comes along, people are going to be looking at their personal situation. They are not interested in your corporate big picture vision for the business. All they are interested in is my family, my house, my kids and my career."


“When you have that personal conversation, you need to have all the information in front of you," McLean says. “The immediate question they will ask is: what's my redundancy package? Another question is: what if I get a job before the time of the redundancy? You need to have an answer for that."

He says difficult conversations are critical for performance management.

“The biggest mistake managers make is fail to manage poor performance or fail to give feedback. You need to tell someone when they have done a good job as well.

“The way to avoid difficult conversations is to give people feedback constantly. It can be simple things like 'You're re in early today' or 'That job you've done is good.'

“It's about noticing what people are doing and getting out and observing them. If you don't do that, then you have a bigger problem which leads to those difficult conversations."

That, he says, is the bottom line. There are some difficult conversations that can be avoided.

“If you are the senior leader, you would want to make sure your people at the supervising level are having those sorts of exchanges at the front line," he says.

Leon Gettler is a veteran and highly regarded management journalist, Leon blogs at

The views and opinions expressed in this communication are those of the author and may not necessarily state or reflect those of ANZ.

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