4 Things to Do Before You Have a Tough Conversation at Work

Even if you loathe workplace conflict, these 4 steps can help you prepare for a tough conversation.

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Taylor Tobin1.84k
April 14, 2024 at 4:11AM UTC

Difficult work conversations can come in a wide variety of subjects, hierarchical pairings, and degrees of importance. Even a simple “I think you stole my yogurt out of the fridge” chat with Sue from Accounting often feels rife with awkwardness. And when you need to sit down with a manager or a subordinate to discuss a serious performance issue, the discomfort only amplifies. 

Luckily, author and corporate trainer Joseph Grenny has substantial experiencing navigating these less-than-smooth office dialogues, and he penned a piece for the Harvard Business Review outlining 4 important steps to take before engaging in a challenging talk in the workplace. Grenny’s suggestions include:

1. Identify specific reasons for the “tough conversation” to prevent you from losing your nerve. 

In his article, Grenny describes a circumstance in which he managed a friendly, affable employee who, unfortunately, proved himself consistently unsuited to his position at the company. Although Grenny knew that he needed to directly address this employee’s shortcomings (and, if he was being honest, he knew that he’d ultimately need to terminate this person’s employment altogether), he admits to approaching past conversations with the employee hoping to “smooth things over” rather than take him to task for his performance problems. Because Grenny’s focus involved avoiding conflict above all else, the issues persisted for months, until Grenny absolutely couldn’t justify ignoring them anymore. 

To reposition his thought process, Grenny took the following step: “The first thing to do when preparing for a crucial conversation is to reset your motives. You can radically change your motives by thoughtfully answering a simple question: What do I really want? I find it helpful to answer it at four levels: What do I really want for me? For the other person? For the relationship? For other stakeholders?”

Once he clarified exactly why he needed to have the difficult conversation with his troubled employee, Grenny felt motivated and empowered to take direct action.

2. Try to keep your emotions as even as possible.

We’re the first ones to agree that the old “don’t get emotional at work!” adage is both grossly gendered and, honestly, unrealistic. We’re all human beings, and emotions play a role in every decision and action we take. That said, professional choices sometimes require you to step back and evaluate whether negative feelings are coloring your perception of a work-related issue. 

Grenny offers this warning: “We often come in angry, scared, hurt, or defensive. Surprisingly, our emotions have less to do with what the other person is doing, and more to do with the story we tell ourselves about what they are doing.”

If you allow yourself to take a moment to examine your emotions and to sift through the ones that may lead you to a conclusion we’ll regret later, you’ll be well-situated for a difficult talk with a colleague. 

3. Back up your arguments with unimpeachable facts.

If you’re calling an employee into your office to reproach him for a misstep or even to fire him, it’s important to reinforce your decision with clear, concrete facts. Without these pieces of evidence, your argument for reprimand or termination may sound unclear to the employee in question.

Grenny puts it like this: “Don’t start a crucial conversation by sharing your conclusion. Share the facts and premises that led you to your conclusion. Lay out your data. Explain the logic you used to arrive where you did. Gathering the facts is required homework for a healthy conversation.”

4. Allow yourself to remain open-minded.

When approaching a tough chat with an employee or coworker, Grenny believes that “most important attitude to bring to a crucial conversation is a blend of confidence and curiosity.” Even if you believe that firing your problematic employee is a foregone conclusion, listening to her with an open mind and engaging in a two-sided conversation can, in some cases, reveal information you didn’t previously possess. This new knowledge may or may not change your thinking about this particular employee and situation. Regardless, it will make the discussion more balanced, and will allow you to arrive at a fully-informed decision. 

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