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How to make difficult conversations easier

Follow these tips to more confidently approach difficult conversations.

4-minute read

Sooner or later, every employer needs to have a difficult conversation with an employee about either performance or workplace behaviour. The prospect of that kind of conversation keeps many entrepreneurs up at night.

The good news is that there are some simple ways to make such conversations easier and more productive, with substantial gains from doing so.

Best practices for hard conversations

How can you manage the situation so that everyone involved feels heard, understood and appreciated? Here are some tips.

1. Act quickly

When an employee fails to meet their objectives or behaves inappropriately, it can be tempting to ignore the issue and wait for the situation to resolve itself. But it’s essential to address the issue as soon as possible. 

Especially in a small company where every employee visibly affects productivity and their colleagues’ morale, not addressing an issue can influence the rest of your business. Not solving a problem can even adversely affect the employee involved because they won’t have the chance to learn and improve.

People perform better when they understand how they contribute to the business and why their actions matter.

2. Be clear about the purpose of the conversation

An employee should never be blindsided by corrective feedback. When you schedule a meeting, let the employee know what it’s about so that they know what to expect.

3. Explain why it matters

People perform better when they understand why their actions matter and how they contribute to the business. Instead of just asking an employee to do something differently, make sure they understand why you’re asking.

Poor performance is often the consequence of unclear expectations.

4. Listen as much as you talk

Have difficult conversations in person, face to face, at a time when you can fully devote your attention to the employee involved. That way, you can have a true two-way conversation during which your employee will have the chance to voice any concerns and help you understand their perspective. You might learn that the employees don’t have the resources to do their job properly or that they didn’t understand the impacts of what they said or did.

5. Make sure corrective conversations aren’t the only ones you have

Connect with employees regularly and give them positive feedback when they’re doing well. The more often you talk to your team, the better you’ll understand what they need to succeed.

Build trust so that your employees will feel comfortable coming to you if something’s not going well—long before it affects their performance. With stronger rapport and more open communication, when you do have to deliver corrective feedback, it will likely be better received.

6. Establish what happens next

It’s not really helpful to simply tell someone what they did wrong. Instead, focus on how they can improve.

Offer positive ideas to resolve the situation and clarify what you expect going forward. Before you leave your meeting, establish an action plan so that you both know what should happen next.

It doesn’t have to be complex or even necessarily written down. Just a few items you both agree to as a path forward. 

Clarity counts

Poor performance and behaviour can often be traced back to unclear expectations, lack of training and other addressable issues. Since most employees want to contribute and succeed, removing barriers and clarifying expectations can help prevent situations that require difficult conversations.

It is advisable to create job profiles to define each person’s role, draft explicit policies on behaviour, and develop a structured performance management system.

Based on your conversations, do what you can to set your employees up for success. Make sure they have the equipment, training, understanding, time, and other resources to do their jobs well.

Set clear goals for your employees

Download our employee goal-setting tool that will help you define measurable employee performance goals, improve communication in your company, and help your employees grow and excel.

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