7 Steps That Make Difficult Employee Conversations Easier

7 Steps That Make Difficult Employee Conversations Easier

7 Steps That Make Difficult Employee Conversations Easier

Finding ways to make difficult employee conversations easier, regardless of your title or status in an organization, can be, well, difficult. Yet one of the most important jobs of a manager is to have conversations that provides helpful, constructive, coaching and feedback. It is often these conversations that create a turning point. A well planned conversation can go a long way in improving engagement, attitude, and performance. A poorly handled conversation can have the opposite effect.

Many managers aren’t comfortable providing constructive criticism, pointing out when a promise has been broken, or standing firm when a deliverable has not been met. Even asking for clarification or seeking additional help can be a challenging conversation for some.

While there is no magic formula or recipe, I have developed a 7-step process for managers and anyone else that needs to have a difficult conversation.

Step #1 – Define the Problem

Describe the behavior and be as specific as possible. Example: Rather than saying, “you’re always late”, try “I’ve noticed you have been coming in later than usual. For instance, on Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday, you were over an hour late.”

Step #2 – Describe the Perception or Impact

What impact is that behavior having on you, the team, or the organization? Sharing a wider impact helps put the problem in perspective. It is often helpful to focus on “the perception” the behavior is creating because perception is reality. In addition, unless you have evidence to the contrary, assume positive intent.

Example: “While I’m sure it’s not your intent, this creates the perception that this isn’t a priority. I can see the team struggling to keep up, and I’m concerned how it may be affecting them. I like you, and I want to see you be successful.”

Step #3 – “Tell Me More.”

Allow the person to vent.

Example: “Tell me about what’s going on”. It is important to listen without arguing, justifying, or defending yourself. Be quiet. Sometimes the silence makes us uncomfortable, and we don’t give the person a chance to process or compose his/her thoughts. This is often the most important step. Validate emotions and feelings: “It sounds like you’re saying xyz. Am I understanding that correctly?”

Step #4 – Agree on the Problem

If you both have different perceptions of the problem, or both don’t agree it is a problem, moving forward can be a challenge. To gain alignment around a solution, you first have to agree on the problem.

Example: “Would you agree with me that continuing down this road is not acceptable?” or, “Can you see how your co-workers might be left feeling the way they do?”

Step #5 – Brainstorm Solutions

Listen openly and avoid criticizing or judging ideas.

Example: “Let’s brainstorm some potential solutions. What are your thoughts? What would you like to see happen?” It’s important to help make the employee feel heard and part of the solution, even if they arrive at the same solution you already had in mind. The goal of the conversation is to get it right, not be right.

Step #6 – Agree on a Solution

Rather than focusing on the past, focus on solutions moving forward. Discuss the positive outcomes and negative consequences for making a change.

Example: “So going forward, you are going to _______, and I will __________. Are we in agreement?”

Step #7 – Follow-Through

The only thing harder than a difficult conversation is having the same one twice. Make it a priority to follow-up and provide feedback. People repeat behavior that gets attention. Catch your employee doing something right and take the time to provide praise and positive feedback.

While difficult conversations can be daunting, this 7-step process will keep you on track and set you and your employee up for success.


Anne Grady is a Speaker, Author, and #TruthBomb Dropper.

Anne shares practical strategies that can be applied both personally and professionally to improve relationships, navigate change, and triumph over adversity. And she’ll make you laugh while she does it. Anne is a two time TEDx speaker, and her work has been featured in numerous media outlets, including Harvard Business Review, Entrepreneur, Forbes, Fast Company and Inc. magazines, CNN, ESPN, and FOX Business. She is the best selling author of 52 Strategies for Life, Love & Work and Strong Enough: Choosing Courage, Resilience and Triumph.

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  1. This blog topic came at a perfect time. I had to have 3 difficult conversations yesterday and used these tactics. The conversations went smoothly and were constructive.
    Thank you!

  2. Fabulous article…If managers would follow these steps, their results with the team members would be much more successful with positive results.

    Thank you for sharing!

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