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Hard Conversations Take Leader Courage

May 22nd, 2017 by Jennifer Archer, Inspiring HR

One of the biggest challenges many leaders fear is having difficult or awkward conversations. From communicating performance issues to addressing body odor, many leaders develop a sick feeling in the pit of their stomach when considering how to even initiate such a discussion. It takes courage to overcome this fear and make the discussion as productive and as positive as possible. To gain this courage, it helps to adjust your mindset before, during and after a tough discussion.


  • Instead of thinking about the conversation as something dreadful which must be gotten through as quickly as possible, look at it as an opportunity to provide information that would give the employee a chance to adjust their behavior or improve their performance. Keep this perspective front of mind while preparing for the conversation.
  • Make a written outline – it’s important to prepare, but not to be so prepared that you can’t be flexible if the conversation goes in a direction you didn’t expect. As part of the preparation, also consider the person’s needs or their tendencies when receiving feedback, and identify key points or statements you can incorporate into the dialogue to maintain their esteem and mitigate defensiveness. Jotting these down bullet points can help ensure you cover the most important information and increase receptivity while not seeming scripted or memorized.


  • Keep in mind that it’s not only what you say, but how you say it. Studies show that only 30% of our message is the words we choose – up to 70% is nonverbal. Your lack of eye contact, sweating hands and overall anxious demeanor will make the conversation much more difficult for both you and the employee.
  • Use these guidelines when you’re speaking:
    • Keep it straightforward and to the point.
    • Focus on the effect the issue has on clients, coworkers or the company in general instead of placing blame.
    • Be truthful and thoughtful. Accurately describe the issue, while maintaining respect for the other person and your relationship with that person.
    • Invite a response – realize that you may not have all the relevant information, and yours isn’t the only possible perspective. Ask something like: “Is there anything else about the situation I’m missing?’
    • Instead of just presenting your “solution,” be willing to ask for help in figuring out a path to solve the problem and move forward. Commit to work together to find it. This creates buy-in and accountability for the other person.
    • Most importantly, BE PRESENT. Give your whole, undivided attention to the conversation and the person you’re having it with. Put your phone on silent, and arrange for a private location without interruptions. Ensure you are ACTUALLY listening, and not just waiting for the other person to stop talking so you can make your next point.
    • Agree and Close – If there are future action items required on the other person’s part, have them reflect back to you what they understand their responsibilities to be moving forward, attain agreement on next steps, and close the conversation. By having them reflect back to you, you can confirm what their heard, immediately clear up uncertainties, and alleviate misunderstandings that later break trust. By gaining agreement, you further solidify their buy-in and accountability.


  • Easily forgotten, yet very powerful: check in with the person the day after. Ask how he/she’s doing, and how they are incorporating your feedback. This will keep lines of communication open and prevent that “elephant in the room” feeling!
  • Wash, rinse, repeat! If you feel like the conversation didn’t go well, you can always reopen the discussion by saying something like ‘I feel I didn’t really explain myself well. Do you have a minute to so I can explain it better?’
  • Keep notes on the conversation and your effectiveness in relating the message, and re-visit them for your own development when you prepare for future conversations.   We can always do better, and by reflecting on your past experiences, you can avoid past mistakes and progressively improve on approaches that worked for you.

It’s important to remember that whether you are actually discussing a tough subject with an employee or not, people pick up on unexpressed feelings or opinions surprisingly well. If you’re hiding from a tough conversation, your employees likely know something is up, but they don’t know what. This uncertainty can cause fear, which is not good for productivity, and letting issues fester never turns out well. That extra weight you’re carrying on your shoulders from putting it off won’t get any lighter until you get it over with, either. So summon the courage to have those conversations in a timely and effective manner – you’ll be a more confident and effective leader when you do.

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