What Great Bosses Know about Tough Conversations

Ask managers to rank their responsibilities from least favorite to most, and I can predict which one will turn up at the bottom of most lists: having difficult conversations. Tough talks may solve problems, but they’re often a no-pain, no-gain situation. To succeed at difficult conversations, managers need the tongue of a gifted orator, the mind of a wise psychologist and a heart of a gutsy lion tamer. All that, with little or no training!

No wonder managers often put off difficult exchanges with staff. They fear they might make things worse. They hope things will resolve themselves without intervention. But at some point, they realize putting off difficult conversations helps no one.

That’s why we include a “difficult conversations” session in many of our leadership and management programs. It’s why we offer a free NewsU course I developed called “Dealing with Difficult Conversations” and some 1,700 people have taken it online. It’s why I’ve written columns that help you:

At the core of all this teaching are three keys to difficult conversations. Think PFF: Preparation, Focus and Followup. Here’s what I mean:

Preparation: Do your homework. Come to a difficult conversation about an employee’s performance or future armed with facts and context. Be mindful of the time and place you hold the conversation and the impact it might have on the person, the workplace, and you.

Think about how your innate approach to conflict might help or hinder you and be ready to modify it for the situation. If the conversation is important or risky, rehearse it with another manager. Be crystal clear about the goal you have for the conversation. Be able to describe the specific behavior you want the person to change.

Focus: Keep your eye on the goal. Don’t get sidetracked by what I call “deflections” from the other person — things like “But Joe does this and gets away with it” or “No one ever told me this was a problem before” or “I can’t believe you’re making an issue of this when there are so many bigger problems” or “I think its all YOUR fault.”

With focus, you will stay calm and bring the other person back to the topic at hand, which is his or her behavior and how it must change. (We demonstrate “deflection” responses on video in the NewsU course.) With focus, you won’t let your emotions get the better of you, and you’ll stay rational and professional if the other person loses composure.

Followup: It may be something as simple as a thank you or something as formal as paperwork, but every difficult conversation deserves a followup. For more serious conversations, it is important to document your talk. You should also set up future performance benchmarks and meetings to review progress.

Keep in mind that if you’ve made even a modest critique of a staffer’s performance (“You’re not usually late, but you’ve missed the first half of the meeting twice this week”), the person may feel the weight of your disapproval long after you’ve forgotten it. If the employee resolves the issue you’ve raised, then make a positive connection as soon as possible, to let the person know you’re aware and appreciative.

Some managers struggle with the emotions that can surface in difficult conversations. In today’s podcast, “What Great Bosses Know about Tough Conversations,” I share tips on dealing with anger, tears and personal attacks.


Poynter’s “What Great Bosses Know” podcast is sponsored by The City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. You can download a complete series of these podcasts free on iTunesU. Poynter’s leadership and management expert Jill Geisler shares practical information on leadership and management that’s valuable for bosses in newsrooms and all walks of life.

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