Having a Tough Conversation at Work- 5 Rules to Follow

by Betty Lochner on January 18, 2012

One of the biggest communication challenges I see managers deal with is how to have a tough conversation with someone.  This goes along with earlier articles I’ve written about dealing with difficult issues as they come up — sooner rather than later.  One reason that we don’t deal with this stuff, is because we don’t want to have an uncomfortable conversation.  So, the issue goes on until you have a big mess on your hands.  Ever been there?

We all know that we can’t change someone’s personality  (though, don’t you wish we could?), but we can change their behaviors.  In order to change behaviors to get different results, we have to get skilled in how to have tough conversations when they need to happen.

Here are 5 simple rules to follow to help you have a successful conversation:

Rule #1 – Match and Pace

Know yourself and your audience.  Be aware of your own communication style – how do you usually communicate?  Now, make it not about you.  Your first priority needs to be connecting with the person you are talking with. Think about the gender, age, and communication style of the person you need to approach.  Match your pace and communication style to theirs. For example, if they are sitting, sit.  If they talk slower, talk slower.

Rule #2 – Be respectful

Always approach the person with kindness and respect. This is not a time for anger, inflammatory language, or name calling.  If you can’t approach the person with complete neutrality and respect, then don’t do it.

Rule  #3Be tough on the issue, but not on the person.

Focus on being tough on the issue, but tender on the person. Don’t make it personal.  Have the conversation about the issue.  One way to do that is to describe the gap between what behavior you expected and then what happened.  Work on changing what people do, not who they are.  For example, we talked about being to work on time and for the past two days you have been over 20 minutes late.  We need to come up with a way for you to be here on time every day….

Rule #4. Get to the point.

Don’t hint around the problem  – focus on the issue and be specific.  Be clear about what you need to say and what you expect to have happen next.

For example, I have been observing your tone of voice with customers at the front desk.   I need you to make sure that you are using a positive tone at all times. Is that something you can do?

Then, follow-up and acknowledge their improved behavior!

Rule #5 –  Learn from the experience.

Being an effective communicator takes practice.  It’s not always easy or comfortable at first. But, becoming comfortable with the uncomfortable is what will make you a good communicator! Learn from each experience what went well and what didn’t.  You’ll become a better manager for it.



Betty LochnerBetty Lochner is the Owner of Cornerstone Coaching & Training. She specializes in personal and organizational transformation and is the author of Dancing with Strangers: Communication skills for transforming your life at work and at home.  She is also the director of Washington’s 529 Prepaid Tuition Program.

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