I taught a night class on Managerial Communication at Metropolitan State University for 10 years.  Students would often ask me, “How do you have difficult conversations with employees?”  The key to having effective and successful difficult conversations with employees is to take in the whole picture and get prepared.  Brush up on some of the principles of emotional intelligence:  self-awareness, self-regulation, motivation, empathy, and social skill.  All of the elements of emotional intelligence will come into play during tough conversations.  It is critical to balance logic and emotion.

Before you accuse anyone, of anything, do your homework.  See yourself as a detective and try to collect all the information you need to fully understand the situation.  These conversations with your employees demonstrate care and concern and help to piece together what has really happened.  The focus of your conversation needs to be fact-based.  If you didn’t personally observe the behavior, have conversations with witnesses, and investigate and verify any accusations made by others.

Do some perspective-taking to make sure you approach the situation with an open mind.  Here are a few questions to consider before entering into difficult conversations:  Was it completely the employee’s fault?  If not, who else was involved and what else needs to be considered?  Was this a training issue or an attitude issue?  Document the facts including dates, times, places, individuals involved, and any mitigating circumstances.  Gathering this information will give you a better interpretation of the context and enable you to prepare your conversation’s content to have the greatest impact.

Give considerable thought about how you will start an uncomfortable conversation.  Give careful thought to your opening remarks.  Think about the order and sequence of events and how to organize the discussion points.  Jot down some notes.  Develop a couple of drafts.  It will be crucial to be clear and concise.  You want to get this right; negative feedback is hard to swallow.  Consider the topic and the tone of the conversation.  Consider a couple of different settings, seating arrangements, and how formal your word choice needs to be for maximum effectiveness.

Another thoughtful question I get asked is, “How do you handle challenging conversations?”  Start by reviewing your notes and making sure you are confident about the comments you will be making.  Describe behaviors rather than coming across evaluative.  If tardiness is the issue, just share examples of them coming to work or meetings late, instead of claiming they are inconsiderate.  These performance issue conversations are difficult enough, so we don’t need anyone getting defensive.  Do some deep breathing before the interaction, so you sound warm and cooperative.

One of the tips for encouraging employee engagement after they’ve received negative or constructive feedback about a poor performance issue, is to get the employee’s side of the story.  Regardless of your findings based upon the information you collected, give the employee the opportunity to explain themselves, their position, and point of view.  Be open to listening and learning their perspective about the performance issue.  Perception is a funny thing.  Maybe, just maybe, if you had been in the same situation, you may have behaved the same way.   Finally, to encourage employee engagement, agree on how mistakes will be prevented in the future, and collaboratively discuss a future plan of action.  We want to create employee engagement not employee resentment.

Here are some tips for handling difficult conversations with your employees when you have to give negative feedback.  The most important strategy for delivering negative feedback is to focus on behaviors.  Work hard at describing observable behaviors.  Keep it impersonal.   Make sure your comments are strictly job-related.  Keep it goal-oriented.  When you refer to previously established goals, it makes the conversation more objective rather than subjective.  Discuss the impact on the team, the department, and the organization overall.

Provide feedback as soon as possible.  Once you have gathered enough information to carry on the conversation, schedule the conversation.  The sooner the better.  The longer you wait the less impact it will have.  Make it well-timed.  Consider the time of the day and day of the week to minimize stress and affect it could have on coworkers.

Ensure understanding once they’ve received feedback.  Ask them to share with you what they think and how they feel.  It doesn’t matter whether you like the person or not, provide both positive and negative feedback.  It’s a performance issue, so, compliment them on their good work and share suggestions for improved performance.  Make sure the received feedback is useful.

It certainly is best to keep challenging conversations fact-based.  The key is to be really specific about the problem or performance issue.  Indicate to the employee you have documentation.  Putting things in writing increases credibility.  Define the violation in exact, specific terms.  Explain the effect the rule violation had on the work unit’s performance.  Being fact-based always beats opinions and inferences.  Effectively handling difficult conversations takes work; homework.  Communication is clumsy and tough enough, don’t leave challenging conversations to chance.

If you need to find a motivational keynote speaker, plenary speaker, breakout speaker, concurrent session speaker, seminar leader, or workshop facilitator who can deliver in-person, virtually, or via prerecorded session, Kit Welchlin earned an M.A. (Master of Arts Degree in Speech Communication), the CSP (Certified Speaking Professional Designation from the National Speakers Association), the CVP (Certified Virtual Presenter Designation from eSpeakers), and is a nationally recognized professional motivational speaker and author and can be found at www.welchlin.com.