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  • Writer's pictureNatalie Robinson Bruner

Navigating Difficult Conversations with Employees

As a manager or leader, one of the most challenging aspects of your role can be having difficult conversations with your employees. These conversations may range from addressing performance issues to discussing sensitive topics like behavior or personal problems. However, these conversations are essential for maintaining a healthy work environment and helping your team members grow. Here are some tips for navigating these challenging conversations effectively:

Be Courageous & Curious:

Difficult conversations are normal in both our personal and professional lives. How we approach these conversations will determine how effective they are. In a Forbes article, Eric Pliner says inclusive leaders focus on curiosity, courage, and connection. They are open to learning and others’ ideas, they are vulnerable and take risks, and they build real relationships.

Prepare Thoroughly:

It’s important not to put off having difficult conversations, but equally important to ensure you are prepared. Clarify the purpose of the conversation, gather relevant facts or examples, and anticipate possible reactions or responses. This preparation will help you stay focused and confident during the discussion.

In a Harvard Business School article, Lauren Landry emphasizes considering the conversation’s layers, including:

  1. What happened – Share your perspective of the situation, staying open and curious about the other person’s perspective and experience.

  2. How we feel about what happened – Allow all those involved in the discussion share their feelings, then address those feelings without judgement.

  3. How the incident intersects with or threatens each person’s identity – Understand that people may feel threatened during a difficult conversation. Once you understand each other’s concerns, you can work together.

Choose the Right Time and Place:

Find a private and comfortable space where you can have a candid conversation without interruptions. Choose a time when both you and the employee are calm and focused, avoiding times of high stress or tension.

Be Direct & Specific:

Start the conversation by clearly stating the purpose and focus of the discussion. Use specific examples to illustrate your points and avoid vague or general feedback. Be honest and straightforward, but also respectful and empathetic. In the words of Brene Brown, “Clear is kind. Unclear is unkind.” Being vague to avoid discomfort is unkind. Being honest and clearly defining expectations is kind.

Pliner recommends connecting you comments and concerns back to your organization’s values. Using these as a benchmark creates clear, consistent expectations.

Listen Actively:

Showing up to a difficult conversation ready to defend yourself or thinking you know everything you need to will not le6ad to a productive discussion. Instead, Pliner recommends being curious and seeking to learn something new about the situation.

Allow the employee to share their perspective and feelings. Listen actively, without interrupting or jumping to conclusions. This demonstrates respect and helps build trust, even in difficult situations.

Focus on Behavior, Not Personality:

When discussing performance or behavior issues, focus on specific actions or behaviors, rather than making personal judgments. This keeps the conversation constructive and helps the employee understand what they need to improve.

Offer Support & Solutions:

Be prepared to offer support and resources to help the employee address the issue. This could include additional training, coaching, or access to counseling services. Work together to develop a plan for improvement. According to Pliner, powerful conversations can inspire action and change. Make commitments during the meeting with set deadlines.

Follow Up:

After the conversation, follow up with the employee to check on their progress and offer further support if needed. This demonstrates your commitment to their development and helps ensure that the issue is being addressed effectively.

Difficult conversations are never easy, but they are a necessary part of leadership. By approaching these conversations with empathy, respect, and a focus on solutions, you can help your employees grow and improve, ultimately benefiting your team and organization as a whole.

If you want to transform leadership within your organization, we can help you get started. Reach out to us at or click here to learn more about our EmpowerED Leadership Development Program.

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