The big wave of layoffs seems to be behind many of us. Still, difficult conversations are far from being over. An employee’s performance has dropped or there’s conflict amongst team members. While many leaders don’t want to hold these tough conversations, there’s no way around them. We must search for ways to improve and solve the situation. Leaders meet their employees and explore what is going on. While most of us aren’t looking forward to these conversations, they don’t have to leave a bad taste in your mouth when keeping these points in mind:


Begin with the end in mind.

What is the outcome you wish to achieve? Consider what each person needs and how this can be achieved. Difficult conversations can still become win-win situations for all sides when you set out with a plan.


Acknowledge being uncomfortable in these conversations.

Showing vulnerability makes us all more human. It also underlines that both you and your employee are in the situation together and you’ll be looking for betterment of the situation.


Be clear and respectful in your language.

Don’t sugarcoat the message and be non-judgmental and honest with your employee. Avoid blame, threats and interrupting as these make the other person defensive and shut down, without being able to clarify and solve the matter.


Speak in a calm matter.

Let this also be reflected in your body language. Fidgeting with a pen or constantly tapping the foot may not come across Zoom calls. The inner unrest, however, does creep into the language, making it uncomfortable for both sides.


Present information objectively.

Be precise when sharing what is evident and observable. Don’t base arguments on someone’s opinion.


Inquire about possible reasons for the problem.

Discard assumptions. “Help me understand, why do you think this problem exists.” Does the employee even see a problem? Do they see a very different problem?


Manage emotions during difficult conversations.

Expressing feelings constructively by focusing on yourself (e.g. “When I hear you say…, it makes me feel…” instead of “You frustrate me when you…”). It’s important to stay on the behaviour, not on the employee and their character. 


Give them space to listen, digest and talk.

Depending on the person, it may not be in this order. Listen actively to what your employee says. Don’t just give them the feeling of being heard, hear them!


Focus together on realistic ideas and options for improvement.

Start with the big picture and narrow it down if they think more conceptually. Be open to your employee’s own process and allow them to dynamic and evolve their thoughts. If your employee’s ideas won’t be used, explain the rational for your decision. Again, it’s about being heard.


Summarise before you finish the conversation.

What actions have been agreed? Have both sides agreed to them? Document the conversation in an email or a special form your company uses. This allows for both sides to read it again and ensures no misunderstandings come up.


Follow up and do what you said you would do.

This underlines your reliability as a leader and demonstrates your commitment to support your employee.

Not every leader feels comfortable and many prefer to avoid the situation altogether. Being a leader, especially these days, requires the know how and the confidence to tackle difficult conversations.

Make leadership development part of your HR strategy and empower your leaders to guide and coach their team members. Contact us and find out how we can support you with our tailored leadership development programmes, coaching your leaders to success.