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Having Difficult Conversations


It is not uncommon in life to have difficult conversations. We have all had conversations where the topic can leave both parties a bit unnerved. If you are a manager or supervisor, sometimes you end up having these conversations with your staff around performance or behavior. Here are some tips to get it professional, clear and productive.

Stick with Policy

People talk and have opinions but when dealing with issues with staff stick with the policy. When you sit down with someone, you should have concrete examples of performance or behavior that is in conflict with the organization’s policy.  Feel free to reference page numbers or cite specific language. This turns the conversation away from an opinion of the matter to a more factual based conversation focused on specifics. In the end, this lays the foundations for being clear and concise.

Outline Specific Issues and the Required Resolution

Speaking in vague terms about someone’s behavior or performance will get you nowhere. While I don’t tend to keep a daily log of all my staff; I do when I start to see issues start. For example, if an employee is coming in to work late you will then have specific days, dates and times you can reference when speaking with the employee. Giving examples of the undesired behavior isn’t enough.  A next step would be then outlining what the expected behavior or action is that will remedy the situation. Not all people read through the lines and if you don’t outline what resolution looks like, experience tells me the behavior won’t change.

Keep the Employee’s Best Interests in Mind

Making these sorts of difficult discussions productive is predicated on leveraging and developing the right amount of social capital. If you cannot get across to the employee that you have their best interests in mind you won’t have the respect needed to evoke the needed changes. Start the conversation with things that are going well, be sure to emphasize that you want them to be successful in their work (and life in general), and let them know you are available to help. In essence, their success is your success.

Wrapping it Up

By sticking with policy, being specific and being mindful of the employee, you can make difficult conversations productive.

For more reading on difficult conversations, check out these articles:

The Gift of a Difficult Conversation

6 Tips for Keeping Your Cool During Difficult Conversations

Making the Most of Critical Conversations

How to Have Courageous Conversations

Garrett Dunwoody is part of the GovLoop Featured Contributor program, where we feature articles by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Contributor posts, click here.

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Profile Photo Steph Drahozal

I agree that using concrete examples is important and keeps the conversation less opinion-based and more fact-based. I think that makes it a lot easier to discuss the issue objectively.

Profile Photo Kaitlin Moller

This is incredibly helpful! Most people dread having difficult conversations but after reading your post it’s clear to see that it can be simple. Policy and mindfulness.