Tough Conversations

Here are four techniques to help you say what needs to be said, with integrity, when it’s hard for you to say it and the other person doesn’t want to hear it

“I’d like to see you in my office at the end of the day.” This is one of those requests that just gives a person chills, a pit in the stomach, cold sweats, even nausea.

Often the one hearing those words is not the only one feeling the discomfort. What is it about a request like this that makes everyone involved just dread the moment? How can a simple request evoke such emotion?

Unfortunately, this is the way most people have learned to handle concerns, take care of business, lay down the law. When it comes to delivering tough conversations, starting with the right question and the right attitude can change everything about the encounter and the outcome.

Many people simply cannot handle these conversations well, but four guidelines will give even the most timid at heart, and the most brutally honest, a way to offer unpleasant information while maintaining integrity and having empathy.

First, a simple guideline. It doesn’t matter if the exchange is from a manager to a subordinate, or from a subordinate to a manager. By starting with a question, you allow the other person to listen and participate at his or her rate of speed, not yours. Then you must be willing to wait for the answer. The simple act of asking a question allows the other party to choose to join the conversation.

1. Ask permission to coach. When you have an issue with a team member and need the person to listen and respond, you must engage that person in the process. Consider calling the team member to your office and finding something to compliment — and then deliver the tough news about the issue at hand.

For example: “Susan, you are one of our best technicians. Do I have permission to coach you in another area?” She will most likely say yes, and you then have the freedom to discuss the troubling issue — be it constant tardiness or whatever else. She has involved herself by saying yes.

2. Ask permission to be honest. If you as a subordinate want to confront an issue with someone in management, it works similarly, but the words are different. You don’t want to make the other person look bad or foolish, so be discrete. Step into the person’s office or schedule a time to go over your concerns.

You might say, “John, do I have permission to be honest with you?” John will respond with less concern about the outcome because you have been respectful in your request. Besides, who would say, “No, I want you to lie to me”?

The other person may seem puzzled when you ask. Don’t fill in the silence — wait for the response. However uncomfortable this might seem, it will create the results you want. Once the question is asked and answered, both parties will listen differently.

3. Leave out the limiting terms. When speaking to someone about habits, behaviors, or personal life, it is important not to sugarcoat. For instance, in discussing a sensitive area, people often use words like, “we,” “a little,” “sort of,” “kind of,” and others that tend to make the issue appear less impactful.

A manager may say to a team member, “Susan, we have a little problem with your tardiness.” And Susan may think: “If ‘we’ have a problem and it is ‘little,’ why are you talking to me?”

As a manager, you might instead say, “Susan, there is a problem with your continuous tardiness. I am concerned and believe you should be too.” This phrasing allows Susan to hear the concern. You should only share the concern after asking permission to coach — that question allows the person to engage at a different level and cuts down on defensive responses.

4. Assume innocence and avoid accusatory language. When having tough conversations, don’t assume you know everything about the person or the behavior that is creating the problem. It is often more than meets the eye.

When you ask for permission to coach or be honest, presume that the other party has no idea there is an issue or problem — assume innocence. The fact Susan is habitually tardy doesn’t mean she disrespects you or the organization. Don’t assume that you know why it is happening.

Susan could have a dying mother or a new diagnosis that is causing her to have blood work done often in the morning. Assuming that she is innocent is much more productive than accusing her. If you wonder what is happening, then just ask. But when you ask, don’t do it with an attitude.

Remember: Manager to team member, ask permission to coach. Subordinate to manager, ask permission to be honest. Use words that don’t limit the impact of the issue. Assume innocence and stay away from accusations.

These four techniques will cut down on the defense mechanisms we all have in our personalities when we know bad news is coming. Focus on the fix, not the flaw. It’s an approach that can help you encourage others to excellence.


About the Author

JoAn Majors is a member of the National Speakers Association and the Global Speakers Network. For information on her seminars and her book, Encouragementors: 16 Attitude Steps for Building Your Business, Family & Future, visit


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