Holding a difficult or tough conversation is never easy. As human beings we are designed to get along and are raised in an environment where we need to take account of others feelings and should avoid upsetting them.

Here are some simple guidelines to follow to make sure you say what you need to say and messages get through.

Tip 1 – It’s a marathon, not a sprint

You should always see holding a difficult conversation as something that will take some time to do well. On average you will only spend 5-10% of the conversation actually stating a criticism, the remaining 90-95% is spent questioning to get the other persons perspective or agreeing on a solution.

This kind of meeting works best when you spend more time discussing how to avoid poor performance in the future, rather than constantly referring to someones short-comings.

Tip 2 – Say what you have to say, then shut up

So you’re in the meeting, the other person knows somethings up, don’t beat about the bush, if you have hard news get it said at the start so you can move on to discussing how to make something better. When opening the conversation always keep an open mind, you may not know all the facts so you may start the conversation with something like…“I notice you had a problem with production on Line 6 yesterday, do you know what happened?”. The objective is to state you know their is a problem, without personal criticism and present it in a questioning way.

Tip 3 – There are two sides to a story

Once you have acknowledged the problem, you can then start asking lots and lots of questions to gain the employees perspective of what went on. Here you can use a simple questioning cycle of Open, Probing, Paraphrase and Closed. The trick is to give the clear impression you are interested in what the employee has to say.

  1. Open questions – Tell, Explain, Describe
  2. Probing questions – who, what, where, when
  3. Paraphrase – repeat what you have just heard
  4. Closed – yes or no confirmation from the employee in terms of what you repeated to them

Tip 4 – Listen up……

When the other person is speaking, demonstrate active listening, this builds trust and encourages the other person to speak up, this is handy if the other person is clearly embarrassed by the mistake or issue.

  • Use supportive and encouraging gestures, such as nods of the head and smiles
  • Make eye contact: look at the speaker directly without staring
  • Take notes: jot down key words and use these for later questions
  • Look interested by facing the speaker, altering your facial expression and staying relaxed and calm

Tip 5 – Look for the solution

When all has been said, all notes taken and the question well is empty – its time to talk how to stop something from happening again. Here you may pick one of four possible approaches – 1) simply tell the employee what to do, its not really negotiating, but its quick; 2 )sell your idea or improvement to the employee – explain the benefits and risks of not changing behaviour and hope this gets the person to buy in; 3) participate – see the new thing that needs to be done as a shared goal, explain what you will do to support the employee and finally; 4) simply delegate the improvement – ask the employee to generate their own ideas to solve their problem.

The one you chose is likely to be based on the attitude of the employee and the seriousness of the issue being discussed.

Summary – It’s not a sandwich

Holding a difficult or challenging conversation should not be seen as a sandwich, whereby the top layer is bread (positive statement), the filling is the criticism and the bottom slice is more praise. We need to see it more like an open baguette – we have thin layer of criticism, then a large amount of questioning and problem solving to prevent the issue from arising again.