Facing the difficult conversation

Anyone managing people faces a moment when a performance review might include a difficult conversation. I was reading an article today on the 4 questions you must ask yourself before such a difficult conversation, by Mike Brown. It prompted me to offer four further distinctions to consider before talking with an employee about problematic behaviors or level of performance.

These will help you, the manager, and the person youre talking with.

If you are a manager who finds these conversations challenging, you are not alone. But have them you must. The cost of avoiding them is high, and the organizational dysfunction that results will catch and will spread. This managerial challenge and the need to address it, is put into stark relief in a recent Roffey Park (UK) survey. It says, we’re seeing managers further down the line struggling to cope with basic issues such as implementing change and dealing with under performing staff” and cites the widespread inadequacy of training in this area.


To even begin to address this, we need to see the critical role of state of mind in the success or failure of difficult conversations. Ill offer these four distinctions as a starting point:

Reflection is Preparation
Drop your agenda
Connecting is Not The Same As Talking
The why is the Easy Part
Reflection Is Preparation

It is important to prepare for difficult conversations. But what kind of preparation makes the biggest difference?

If you arent doing this already, get attuned to your own state of mind. Do an internal review and notice the intimate connection between your own mood and your thinking about this conversation or this person. If you are dreading the conversation, dont be surprised if your mood is low. If you are open to such an inventory, you will see that your emotional state is the barometer of your own quality of thinking. You might have assumed how you felt was the inevitable response to the situation at hand. Check and see. Youll find your opinions and judgements are creating the emotion are you experiencing. Recognize this and get real about where you are.

Recognize that emotions, like thoughts, are changing things. As a manager, you want to be as clear and relaxed for this conversation, right? Most people plow ahead into tough situations regardless of their own state of mind, assuming their state of mind is irrelevant or unavoidable. Heightening your awareness of your internal world will help you avoid adding another level of difficulty to the conversation. If you are in a low state of mind, recognize that and act accordingly. Nothing cant wait until tomorrow when your mood has changed. It will give you a chance to stop blaming your own state of mind on the situation or the person.

Just as an athlete spends time learning to clear the mind before a race so they can be in their best mental shape, attention to our state of mind when leading a difficult conversation can be a make or break difference.

Drop Your Agenda

No matter what preparation youve made or what points need to be covered, be prepared to drop them all in order to have a human-to-human conversation. If you have set questions or things you must cover because you are in a formal review process, do not let these interfere with having a real conversation. (If there are legal ramifications, all the more valuable that you stay clear-headed!) If your head is taken up in covering all the agenda items or you are preoccupied elsewhere, you literally will not hear the other person. They will know this and respond accordingly.

Be ready to put the agenda aside and just listen with nothing on your mind. You may hear things you never heard before.

Difficult Conversation? Drop Your Agenda!Connecting is Not The Same As Talking

It is good to spend a moment to become aware of the other persons mood and the feeling in the room before beginning the conversation. All people have their moods and your words are unlikely to be heard by someone lost in concern and worry.

Conversations have a tone to them and it is not difficult to feel what that is. Sometimes simply slowing down allows you to notice more. You will then be able to determine how to adjust. You can discuss difficult situations, problems and even crisis, without the tenor of the conversation going down if the feeling between you is relaxed.

We are becoming accustomed to human conversation taking place while both parties multi-task. This is unacceptable in a conversation of this nature. Turn cell phones off, leave other devices outside and decide to give someone the gift of your undivided attention. If you stay in the moment with someone live youll be astounded how much faster things get ironed out. Avoid interrupting and give them your total inward attention. Listen as if you didnt know them at all.

Nancy Klines wonderful book on the Thinking Environment Time to Think : Listening to Ignite the Human MindDifficult Conversation? Drop Your Agenda! is an essential read for all managers. In it she reveals how deeper listening actually draws out the ability in others to think well. If you want someone to hear you when you are telling them their behaviors are problematic, lead by listening. In fact, based on what Ive seen, the more you label someone as difficult the more you sink them into their own thinking about it and so the behavior continues.

The Why Is The Easy Part

When managing difficult behaviors, you really do not need to understand why people do each different thing they do. People always do everything for the same reason: behavior depends on the quality of anyones thinking at a given time. As managers, it helps us open to others to see that anyone can have fresh thinking at any time. Ability to change behavior is unrelated to personality types.

No one can be in perfect, high-level thinking and clarity in all moments. Everyone dips and rises. By understanding this, you can let low moments pass by rather than trying to fix things from your lowest point. After all, theres a reason we have the saying to sleep on it.

In sum, behaviors are never in response to the situation, they are in response to what someone perceives about a situation. As such, the most helpful thing you can do is to help someone realize that thinking can and does shift. When it does, what looked to them as reasonable or justifiable will no longer seem so.

No matter how problematic the situation or the behaviors look, that does not mean your conversation about it needs to be difficult.