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10 ways to make a difficult conversation a little easier

It's the conversation every manager or supervisor dreads: Talking to a subordinate whom co-workers have complained about. Regardless of whether the issue is punctuality, work ethic, or worst of all, hygiene, the conversation poses a challenge. Here are some tips that might make the process easier and more effective.

It's the conversation every manager or supervisor dreads: Talking to a subordinate whom co-workers have complained about. Regardless of whether the issue is punctuality, work ethic, or worst of all, hygiene, the conversation poses a challenge. Here are some tips that might make the process easier and more effective.

Note: This information is also available as a PDF download.

#1: Address the matter as soon as possible

In a previous article, I discussed the idea that subordinates should take initiative, rather than wait for assignments or direction from the boss. Here, the same concept applies, but in reverse: If possible, don't wait for your staff members to complain to you. If you see an issue, deal with it as soon as possible. Doing so can resolve the issue more quickly, and more important, it can make a good impression on your staff. Even if you never say anything explicitly about it (and you probably shouldn't), word will get out via the grapevine, and your team will appreciate it -- and you.

#2: Set a specific time and place

Have you ever seen a minister, judge, or ship's captain come up to a couple on the spur of the moment, begin chatting casually with them and while doing so say, "Oh, by the way, you're now married"? Of course not. The ceremony could be elaborate, or it could be simple, but there is a ceremony nonetheless. People know when and where to be, and what will be happening.

Use this same approach yourself. Don't bring up the topic by surprise, in the middle of a casual conversation about the weather, or even during a regular business discussion. Instead, alert the person first by saying, "I've got something important I need to discuss. Can we get together at 10:00?" You've now set an expectation and have increased the chances that your later conversation will be effective.

#3: Sit, don't stand

Many aspects of etiquette have military underpinnings. For example, shaking hands shows the other person that you're not holding a weapon. Allowing another person to proceed before you saves you in the event of an ambush. Rising to your feet when a person enters the room allows you to begin fighting more easily.

This latter distinction between standing and sitting is important when having the conversation. If you're both sitting down during the conversation, there's less chance that tension will arise.

#4: Keep in mind the location

Regardless of the specific location, privacy is important. You don't want others to hear what's going on, so that the subordinate is embarrassed. Beyond that, you have three options for location: your office, the subordinate's office, or a neutral site. Each has advantages and disadvantages. Your office provides the greatest degree of control but could be intimidating. The subordinate's office may be less intimidating but might give the impression that you're encroaching on his or her turf. A neutral location, such as a cafeteria, might have fewer options for privacy but might make the subordinate feel more at ease.

Regardless of where you meet, think about where you sit with respect to the subordinate. Maybe you want to be behind your desk. On the other hand, maybe you want both of you to be on the same side of the desk or table. The latter option sends a message that you're both on the same side and can be less confrontational.

#5: Focus on the issue, not the person

The chances of an effective conversation are increased if, instead of focusing on the person, you focus on the issue. For example, the statement, "Your lateness is affecting the project" focuses on the person, while, "Punctuality is important to keep the project on schedule" focuses on the issue and is less likely to make someone defensive or hostile.

#6: Be specific about the concern

Being specific gives your comments more credibility. For example, noting specific instances of lateness will carry more weight than a general statement about the importance of being on time or about the subordinate's lateness. In particular, be specific regarding time and date (Monday, March 3: 15 minutes late); place (late for meeting in conference room 1); and person (John was unable to give a full presentation).

#7: Be collaborative

In teaching customer service skills, I tell my clients to move the conversation into "collaborative" mode as quickly as they can. By doing so, the focus switches from "customer vs. service provider" to "customer and service provider vs. the problem". Tension is reduced as the two join forces to fight the common enemy.

This same approach can work when talking to an employee. If you can change the focus of the conversation so that you're dealing with the problem together, it will be less stressful and embarrassing for both of you. In the case of the tardy subordinate, for example, think about brainstorming ideas on why the tardiness is occurring and how to overcome it.

#8: Avoid negative statements

I have found (and tell my clients) that negative statements are more likely to be misunderstood than positive ones -- and worse, they send the wrong message. Try to state your concerns positively rather than negatively. Instead of saying, "The project can't go smoothly if you don't come in on time," consider, "For the project to go smoothly, it's important to be punctual."

#9: Encourage the subordinate

When the conversation is over, thank the subordinate for his or her time. Explain that you want him or her to succeed (as well you should, because that person's success can determine your own success). At the same time, say that you have high expectations and you hope the subordinate will live up to them. It's no guarantee, of course, but people tend to live up or down to what others expect of them.

#10. Document the meeting

After the meeting, document the discussions you had and any agreements or plans you worked on. Doing so provides a record and can be important if further measures are needed, including termination.

Having these conversations is rarely easy or pleasant. However, they are part of the manager's job. Following these tips may make the conversation more effective.


About

Calvin Sun is an attorney who writes about technology and legal issues for TechRepublic.

18 comments
chriswilke
chriswilke

As an employee, I have had a boss use a one on one meeting to seriously go off at something that was not even factual. From this experience & many others like it, I personally will not enter meetings one on one anymore, there is too much of what he said vs what I said if anything goes wrong. I have even over heard two boss's discussing how to get people to do what they want, which included pulling a employee in to a room for a one on one meeting, berating them & saying what ever they want, knowing it was the employee vs them when it came to who said what. In one instance I had a problem with a team leader, his boss just backed him & HR backed them both instead of listening to anything I had to say - how should one deal with these situations?

bernadette.curless
bernadette.curless

Something to keep in mind. Some managers (not all) use the word "subordinate" in a demeaning and derogatory way. Even if you, as a manager, think the word is appropriate, actually addressing your staff and calling them "subordinates" can sometimes have a negative impact.

tim.smith3
tim.smith3

Mr. Sun's take on the military underpinnings in Tip #3 are true, but I didn't really find them relavent. I find that the approach you use to address a problem with an employee is often as unique as the employee. A key aspect of leadership in the entry level manager is understanding what motivates your employees...each of your employees...it's essential to getting results. Sometimes the direct approach works best; sometimes subtlety works better. You just can't use a cookie cutter approach to your team members. One other point about humility - Klaas certainly pointed out an important point: managers aren't perfect, and shouldn't act as though they are. There is a fine line between being agressive and being a motivating leader.

klaasvanbe
klaasvanbe

You're talking about having a conversation to a "problem employee". Isn't it more difficult to talk to a problematic manager?

prosenjit11
prosenjit11

This is a debatable topic and most important what is the root cause for any conversation that is dreaded. It is seen that in most cases such a situation arises when a project or a situation is at the helm of taking on the nerves of the people, for example a project or contract that has to be won and the post win situations where the clients need some results. Under these circumstances it is important to specifically mention to the concerned persons what is going on? There are some mischiefs played by others and the innocent ones are victimised. Sometimes being aggressive gives the negative impact, one could be polite once, twice, thrice, respond with logical proofs and reasonings but at one point it is likely one cannot take it and have to explain to the concerned person what is going on. There are some BOSSES who take feedback from subordinates and this aggrevates the situation putting the person's integrity in stake.

mishragautam_k
mishragautam_k

just excellent and really pragmatic which you could apply what you just learned. Thanks again for this outstanding presentation.

BALTHOR
BALTHOR

Always make notes then read your notes after.You can also have a conversation that complimemts and rewards.Never let the other person feel out numbered or unjustly on the defensive.State the reason for the metting before hand and don't let them think it's a firing if it isn't.

DadsPad
DadsPad

Have see many managers that could use these tips. :) I am with Tigger, when I had a similar talk with an employee, had an outline before and notes on what was discussed during. Then made sure the employee and I signed after agreeing to what was written. However, I did not automatically give the employee a copy. But informed the person it would be kept on file and the employee could have a copy if wanted. Some did want a copy, most did not.

navneetkhehra
navneetkhehra

these issues are really very commeon but sometimes we miss them...so this is really good way to remember them....thanks

Tig2
Tig2

You note under number ten that you should document the conversation after it has ended and your subordinate has left. I have long been in the habit of outlining the conversation prior to having it and actively taking notes during. I preface that by telling the team member that I will provide a copy of my notes to them and that the reason for taking them is so that we both recall later what we agreed to. I've never had any negative feedback by doing that but now wonder if something was left unsaid. I certainly understand the reasons for documenting the conversation but wonder if WHEN that documentation occurs is important too.

BALTHOR
BALTHOR

Your team needs to hear corporate good news.

Gravitywell
Gravitywell

Before I had to retire, I always tried to keep a good relationship with the plant managers and the less responsible folks; usually they were more than willing to welcome me into their offices\ schedules and discuss whatever was on my mind... I think it is important for "higher ups" to be available to those for whom they are responsible. Productivity is much improved because there is less tension caused by distance between them.

navneetkhehra
navneetkhehra

these issues are really very commeon but sometimes we miss them...so this is really good way to remember them....thanks

jvena1
jvena1

Where I used to work, these were called "action plans" and were normally for disciplinary use. It normally leaves the subordinate with lower morale than when the meeting started. Then again, if you are having a meeting with the person to begin with, chances are morale for the entire team is probably low. :p I personally feel taking notes during the meeting is a good course of action because it shows you're willing to work with and assist the person in overcoming what could be a productivity problem.

shackledupgto
shackledupgto

lol I wish I were retired too. Reminds of the man, John Bogle, who started the Vanguard mutual fund group. He wrote that he always liked going into the cafeteria (I think they call it the "galley") and just sit down with "regular staff" and eat lunch with them. I hear from people that if you didn't know who he was, he just seemed like a nice old man ie. really humble and down to earth lol.

rkell25
rkell25

I don't think taking notes during the meeting or "problem-solving" session is a very good message. It looks like your recording it so that it can be used if there is no performance gain. It makes it more seious and formal, while this may have a greater impact on the employee it may also bring up resentment especially if not handled in the most delicate and subtle manner.

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