What makes difficult conversations more difficult is not being confident about how to turn these interactions into constructive and, possibly productive, discussions, beneficial to all who participate. Since the purpose of any discussion is not to just make a few points and leave, but rather to connect and come to an understanding, you need to develop your strategy a bit more.  There are a few tips and hints that will help you, as the leader, have those conversations and not feel like you have to avoid them anymore.

1. Plan that conversation

One of the reasons you may be avoiding difficult conversations is that you may be remembering the last several and they did not go well because you didn’t have a clear purpose, nor did you have a couple of pertinent tools hand. Don’t worry, here are a couple of questions that will help you plan to have the conversation go well:

  • What is the reason that this conversation needs to be had? Be specific. Is it sub-standard work on the other person’s part?  Is there some personal issue between that person and another that is impacting the work or productivity of the entire team? Write them down if you cannot remember.
  • What is it that you wish to accomplish with this conversation? Identify specific outcomes you would like to see. Again, write these down so you are focused.

Since a conversation involves active listening on both parts, you lead by example and show you are listening by having at least 80% eye contact, especially when they are talking. It’s a good idea to feed back to them what they have said to you, to make sure that you’ve understood fully.

A conversation is also a chance for all sides to be able to state things and ask questions to help explain those statements.  Make positive statements that show you and the other person are on the same side and this conversation is simply a way of exploring an issue that both of you will work together to eliminate or at least minimise.

2. Show that you know their accomplishments and that they are appreciated 

You do not have to patronise them and go over board with this, however, the issue they are having might be related to them not being aware of your attention to their job. Make them aware that you do see some of the small things they do well.

3. Ask questions to understand what is going on

You need to place yourself in a mindset that is inquiring.  The mindset of ‘How can we work through this issue?’ should come through to them and that they are helping you find the answers to your inquiry.  Most people like to solve a problem so let them.

4. Emotions do not indicate the closing of this conversation

Emotions may be part of the issue. You, as the leader, will need to manage emotions because, when left to fester, they can grow into anger or resentment, which is definitely not productive. Offer a tissue if necessary and allow a few moments to recover before continuing.

5. Do Not Get Side Tracked

You have planned your discussion and focused on the outcomes you wish to achieve.  You have brought the issue up and made it a team effort, just between the two of you, to work through it to a satisfactory outcome that you both agree to. You have not made it personal and have shown respect for their abilities and sensibilities.  Make sure that while all of this is happening, you don’t get side-tracked into other discussions that veer off from this purpose: This will get you into distinctly unproductive issues that can delve into personal accusations about others and into blaming someone else.

Difficult conversations can be as simple as any others if you follow a few simple techniques consistently.  Communicating effectively is essential as part of your personal leadership.