Tough conversations are…well.. tough.  It’s certainly not the most enviable part of being a leader, but it’s certainly a differentiator between an ok manager and a leader worth following.  A great leader doesn’t shy away from difficult conversations, but at the same time isn’t confrontational enough to create unneeded drama in the workplace. They have the conversations that need to be had with positive intent that benefits the individual and the team. 

Here are some things to remember as you step up to tough conversations. 

You aren’t (and shouldn’t be) alone

You shouldn’t walk through your leadership journey (or life) alone. There is power in having a great mentor (ep 171), having accountability partners (ep 191), and building strong relationships (ep 209). Leveraging those relationships in times like this is helpful as you prepare for those difficult conversations. 

Seek feedback, discuss the situation, and bounce ideas of approach off of your trusted advisors, and mentors. They may be able to fill in a perspective that you haven’t considered or give you valuable feedback on your approach or intentions. 

Many organizations also have HR support, either as a generalist or someone that specifically works with employee issues. Be sure to partner with these groups for guidance. They can help to ensure that you are good from a legal and best practice perspective. 

Go in with a plan

No matter your level of comfortability with improvisation when speaking to others, always plan through the key points that you want to share when having a difficult conversation with others. 

Here is a real way that a tough conversation can go if you head into the interaction with the “I’m just going to wing it” mentality.

  • You begin the conversation, it meanders a bit and you miss one of the key points of the conversation. 
  • The person responds in a way that you hadn’t considered and you improvise some more. This takes you further off course. 
  • The other person reacts to the change in direction. 
  • Now you react again to the other person, further taking you off-topic. 
  • Rinse and repeat the back and forth.
  • By the end, you are both at your wit’s end. You’ve only further eroded the relationship and can’t realistically expect any kind of behavior change from the person, because they haven’t accepted the feedback that you wanted to give. 

Not ideal! You’ve likely seen that conversation play out several different ways in both your personal and professional life. You don’t necessarily have to have a script for every conversation, but you should always have a plan: 

  • What are the key points that you want to get across? 
  • What is the impact of the reason for the meeting?
  • What time frame do they need to correct the behavior or action?
  • What is the best place or environment to have the conversation?
  • What are some ways that they may react? Are you mentally prepared for those reactions?

Acknowledge your feelings

We have experience feelings leading up to and during those difficult conversations. It’s likely that you are frustrated, disappointed, or even angry with the person and the decisions that led to a need for a tough conversation. Take time to acknowledge those and process them as you prepare for that talk with the other person. 

You may be given the advice to “shut down” your emotions and just plow through the conversation with the other person. (A just do it mentality) Sure, you may be able to navigate a conversation this way, but you’re less likely to come out on the other side of the interaction in a way that truly adds value to others. 

Instead of shutting off all emotions and coming across as cold and uncaring, lean into your emotional intelligence skills in order to acknowledge both your and the other person’s emotions without letting emotions run rampant over the reason for the conversation. 

One tip in coaching while acknowledging emotion comes from EP 205: How to Handle Toxic People:

  • Be honest and give feedback.  It’s okay to be assertive and to the point. “When you _____activity_____ I get/feel/become ____emotion_____. I need ________ going forward. I wanted you to know this because__________ (It impacts my work and I want to have a good relationship with you, I care about you, I want us both to do well, etc)

It’s ok to be nervous or to have butterflies in your stomach before a difficult conversation. Acknowledge them, remember your plan and partnerships with others that have supported you up until this moment. Go into the conversation with positive intent while showcasing your strong emotional intelligence and empathy skills.  The other person will be better equipped with proper expectations and you’ll be strengthening your own leadership qualities in the process. 

Make a better tomorrow.