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by Taylor Tobin via Fairygodboss | February 20, 2019


man and woman talking

Difficult work conversations come in a variety of subjects and degrees of importance. Even a simple, “I think you stole my yogurt out of the fridge” chat with a colleague can feel rife with awkwardness. And when you need to sit down with a manager or a subordinate to discuss a serious performance issue, the discomfort only amplifies.

Luckily, author and corporate trainer Joseph Grenny has substantial experiencing navigating these less-than-smooth office dialogues, and he recently wrote an article for the Harvard Business Review outlining several important steps to take before engaging in a challenging talk in the workplace. Grenny’s suggestions include the following four tips.

1. Identify the reasons you need to have the “tough conversation” so you don't lose your nerve.

Grenny writes that he once managed a friendly employee who proved himself consistently unsuited to his position. Although Grenny knew he needed to address this employee’s shortcomings, he approached many conversations with the employee hoping to “smooth things over” rather than take him to task for his performance problems. Since Granny avoided conflict, the issues persisted until Grenny couldn’t ignore them anymore.

To reposition his thought process, Grenny took the following step: “The first thing to do when preparing for a crucial conversation is to reset your motives. You can radically change your motives by thoughtfully answering a simple question: What do I really want? I find it helpful to answer it at four levels: What do I really want for me? For the other person? For the relationship? For other stakeholders?”

Once he clarified why he needed to have the difficult conversation with his troubled employee, Grenny felt motivated and empowered to take direct action.

2. Try to keep your emotions as even as possible.

The old “don’t get emotional at work!” adage is both grossly gendered and unrealistic. We’re all human beings, and emotions play a role in every decision and action we take. That said, professional choices sometimes require you to step back and evaluate whether negative feelings are coloring your perception of a work-related issue.

Grenny offers this warning: “We often come in angry, scared, hurt, or defensive. Surprisingly, our emotions have less to do with what the other person is doing, and more to do with the story we tell ourselves about what they are doing.”

If you allow yourself to take a moment to examine your emotions and sift through the ones that might lead you to a conclusion you’ll regret later, you’ll be well-situated for a difficult talk with a colleague.

3. Back up your arguments with facts and data.

If you’re calling an employee into your office to reproach him for a misstep or even to fire him, it’s important to reinforce your decision with clear, concrete facts. Without these pieces of evidence, your argument for reprimand or termination may sound unclear to the employee in question. Grenny puts it like this: “Don’t start a crucial conversation by sharing your conclusion. Share the facts and premises that led you to your conclusion. Lay out your data. Explain the logic you used to arrive where you did. Gathering the facts is required homework for a healthy conversation.”

4. Remain open-minded.

When approaching a tough chat with an employee or coworker, Grenny believes that “most important attitude to bring to a crucial conversation is a blend of confidence and curiosity.” Even if you believe that firing your problematic employee is a foregone conclusion, listening to her with an open mind and engaging in a two-sided conversation can, in some cases, reveal information you didn’t previously possess. This new knowledge may or may not change your thinking about this particular employee and situation. Regardless, it will make the discussion more balanced, and will allow you to arrive at a fully-informed decision.

A version of this post previously appeared on Fairygodboss, the largest career community that helps women get the inside scoop on pay, corporate culture, benefits, and work flexibility. Founded in 2015, Fairygodboss offers company ratings, job listings, discussion boards, and career advice.