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**The Dos and Don'ts of Handling Difficult Conversations**

Introduction


As a manager or team leader, tough conversations are inevitable. Whether it's addressing poor performance, navigating conflict or delivering difficult news, the way you handle these conversations can significantly impact your team’s morale and productivity. Let's dive into the dos and don'ts that can help you navigate these challenging moments with grace and effectiveness.

 

The Dos


Do: Prepare Thoroughly

Preparation is key. Before diving into a tough conversation, gather all relevant information and facts. Understand the issue from multiple perspectives and be clear about the outcome you desire. For example, if you need to discuss an employee’s repeated tardiness, review their attendance records and consider any underlying reasons they might have.

 

Do: Create a Safe Environment

The setting of the conversation matters. Choose a private, neutral space where the employee feels safe to express herself. Start the conversation with empathy. You might say, “I understand that this might be a difficult topic to discuss, but I believe it’s important for us to address it together.”

 

Do: Listen Actively

Active listening is more than just hearing words; it’s about understanding the underlying message. Show that you’re listening by nodding, maintaining eye contact and reflecting back what you’ve heard. For example, "It seems like you've been experiencing a great deal of stress lately, which might be impacting your situation. Is that correct?”


Don't: one way difficult conversation on the left vs Do: relaxed interactive conversation on the right.
Maintain a professional demeanour but ensure all team members are comfortable voicing their opinions during difficult conversations.

Do: Focus on Solutions

The goal of a tough conversation should be to find a constructive path forward. Collaborate with the other person to develop actionable solutions. For instance, when addressing poor performance, you might say, “Let’s come up with a plan to help improve your performance. What support do you need from me, to succeed?”

 

Do: Follow Up

Follow-up is crucial to ensure that progress is being made. Schedule a follow-up meeting to review the agreed-upon actions and provide further support, if needed. For instance, “How are you feeling about the changes we discussed in our last meeting? Is there anything else you need to help you meet your goals?”

 

Do: Show Empathy

Showing empathy can ease tension and foster a cooperative atmosphere. Acknowledge the other person’s feelings and demonstrate that you care about their perspective. For example, “I can see that this situation is frustrating for you. Let’s work together to find a solution.”

 

The Don'ts

Don’t: Blindside Your Team

No one likes to be caught off guard, especially in sensitive situations. If a tough conversation is needed, provide some context beforehand. For instance, instead of calling an employee into your office without warning, you could say, “I’d like to discuss some concerns about your recent performance. Let us set aside some time this afternoon?”

 

Don’t: Let Emotions Take Over

It’s easy for emotions to run high during tough conversations, but it’s crucial to stay calm and composed. If you find yourself getting emotional, take a deep breath and refocus on the issue at hand. Avoid personal attacks or blaming language. Instead of saying, “You always mess up your reports,” try, “I’ve noticed some errors in your recent reports and I’d like to understand what’s going on.”


Don’t: Make Assumptions

Assumptions can derail a conversation before it even begins. Instead of assuming why someone is behaving a certain way, ask open-ended questions. For example, rather than assuming an employee is disinterested in their work, ask, “I’ve noticed a change in your engagement levels. Can you share what’s been going on?”


A group of professionals in a difficult conversation around a conference table, highlighting the importance of active listening during difficult conversations.
Don't: stilted difficult conversation vs Do: casual meaningful conversation.

 

Don’t: Leave Things Unresolved

Ensure that the conversation concludes with clear next steps and expectations. Summarize what was discussed and agreed upon. For example, “To recap, we’ve agreed that you will submit your reports by the end of each day and I will check in with you weekly to see how things are going.”

 

Don’t: Interrupt or Dismiss

Interrupting or dismissing the other person’s points can escalate the situation and lead to frustration. Allow them to speak fully before responding. For example, if they’re explaining their side of a story, listen without cutting in, even if you disagree.

 

Don’t: Overgeneralise

Avoid using phrases like “you always” or “you never,” as they can make the other person feel attacked and defensive. Stick to specific instances and behaviours. For example, instead of saying, “You never meet deadlines,” say, “I have noticed that the last three reports were submitted late.”

 

Conclusion

Tough conversations don’t have to be dreadful. With the right approach, they can lead to growth, improved relationships, and better team dynamics. By preparing thoroughly, creating a safe environment, listening actively, and focusing on solutions, you can navigate these conversations with confidence and care. Remember, the way you handle tough conversations can set the tone for your entire team.


Understanding the dos and don'ts of handling difficult conversations is crucial for fostering a productive work environment. By following the best practices outlined in "The Dos and Don'ts of Handling Difficult Conversations," you can ensure that your interactions are both effective and respectful. Implement these strategies to not only address issues but also to build a stronger, more cohesive team.

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