Tips for having difficult conversations

Part of being a manager is confronting employees with changes they need to make in their behavior or their performance. These conversations are never easy and certainly don’t come naturally. Try to see the conversation as a way to gain information and get results, not “punishing” someone.  Here are some tips to make these conversations easier.

  • Be clear in your own mind what you’re dealing with. What is the actual problem?
  • 180-degree thinking. Assume the other person isn’t an idiot and has reasons for their viewpoint.
  • What are the outside factors? Illness/other personal problems?
  • Does it really matter? Is it a battle you want to fight?
  • Is it a one-time problem or a chronic problem?
  • Write down key points. Stick to those points. Avoid carrying problem into other areas.
  • Get to the point.
  • Move forward.
  • Don’t apologize.
  • Practice the conversation – really.
  • Imagine hypotheticals.
  • Ask person what they heard.
  • Follow up and re-establish connection with person.
  • Here are a few tips on improving your delivery:
  1. Use “and,” not “but.” When you need to disagree with someone, express your contrary opinion as an “and.” It’s not necessary for someone else to be wrong for you to be right.  When you are surprised to hear something a teammate has said, don’t try to trump it, just add your reality. “You think X and I’m concerned about Y. What are our options?”  This will engage your teammates in problem solving, which is inherently collaborative instead of combative.
  2. Use hypotheticals. When someone disagrees with you, don’t take them head on—being contradicted doesn’t feel very good.  Instead, a useful tactic is to ask about hypothetical situations and to get them imagining. (Imagining is the opposite of defending, so it gets the brain out of a rut.) If you are meeting resistance to your ideas, try asking your teammates to imagine a different scenario. “I hear your concern about X, but what if …?”
  3. Ask about the impact. Directing open-ended questions at your teammate is also useful.  If you are concerned about a proposed course of action, ask your teammates to think through the impact of implementing their plan.
  4. Discuss the underlying issue. Many conflicts spiral out of control because people aren’t on the same page. If you disagree with a proposed course of action, instead of complaining about the solution, start by trying to understand what’s behind the suggestion. If you understand the reasoning, you might be able to find another way to accomplish the same goal. If you agree that the problem they are trying to solve is important, you will have common ground from which to start sleuthing toward answers.
  5. Ask for help. Another tactic for “nice conflict” is to be mildly self-deprecating and to own the misunderstanding. If something is really surprising to you (e.g., you can’t believe anyone would propose anything so crazy), say so.  “I’m missing something here, help me understand why we’re doing this.” If the person’s idea really doesn’t hold water, a series of genuine, open questions that come from a position of helping you understand will likely provide other teammates with the chance to help steer the plan in a different direction.

Adapted from longtime editor Linda Grist Cunningham and from Harvard Business School