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5 Tips For Starting Difficult Conversations With An Employee

In this article, career coach Sandy Aquino offers up tips on how to effectively navigate challenging conversations with employees. Her advice will teach you how to work past your discomfort and deliver productive feedback. 


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Starting a difficult conversation with an employee is not always easy. So how can you make these conversations less uncomfortable and awkward?


Here are 5 tips that have worked for me in the past that you can try in your next session:


1. Tell them why they are there right off the bat. Don't beat around the bush. 

Don't sugar coat your delivery with confusing mixed messages to make yourself feel better and soften the blow.  If they are not in trouble or being disciplined, lead with that. People cannot focus and their anxiety may spiral out of control as they play all the possible scenarios in their brain waiting for you to get to the point. 



2. Express that you care about their growth. 

I always coach my clients to sit down with each team member at the beginning of the relationship to gain agreement on your mutual expectations and promises. 


Three promises I always suggest you make to your employees are: (1) being honest even when it’s not easy, (2) holding them accountable for behavior and results, and (3) pushing them outside their comfort zone all in an effort to help the employee unleash their full potential. 


That conversation will be what supports both your easy and your difficult conversations for the entirety of your working relationship. It will be your guiding light when things get tough. 


Refer back to that initial conversation and remind your employee of the mutual agreements you made. Most employees will react more favorably when they know you’re coming from a good place and that your intention is to help them grow. Being held accountable is just a natural part of that process. 



3. Let them know that you will give them a chance to respond, but it’s important that they hear you out first.

This will allow you to get your findings out on the table without interruption. Resist being accusatory in your statements. No blaming or shaming here. Save your opinions for the discussion that will come later.



4. Keep your delivery fact-based and use concrete examples that you have personally observed or data you’ve gathered.

One of the worst things you can do is to cite third hand accounts and rumors in a disciplinary conversation. Stick to data that you’ve gathered and observations that you’ve witnessed. Denial is a typical response. Expect it, but always have the data to back up your statements.



5. Stop talking and listen.

The key to successful interactions is to stop talking and listen once you’ve delivered your message. Allow the employee to respond as you said that you would. Be 100% sure your employee feels heard. It is more important in this situation for them to feel understood, than for them to understand you. 


Let me say that louder for those in the back. In this situation, it is more important for them to feel understood than for them to understand you. I know that seems counter-intuitive, but it’s true and it will help you to build trust and strengthen your relationship with that employee going forward. 



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