Tough conversation at work – simple and effective solutions


There are many situations at your work, when you need to have a tough conversation with a team member or your superior. How to prepare for it, start and hold the talk, then finalize it having both sides satisfied?

Preparation for the meeting

At first, you need to be well prepared for the conversation. It’s usually impossible to resolve problems when you decide to just jump in and start talking. There are few steps to be considered:

  1. Who are you going to talk? Find out more about the person you will be talking to. You need to know his or her current position in the company, previous experience, relations etc. I also recommend to find out something about personality type of that person, because your scenario may be different depending on it.
  2. What are you going to talk about? Tough conversation is usually about the problems, but you should know exactly what it is about, who was involved in that situation and any other necessary facts. You just can’t start tough conversation with some assumptions, like “I heard some rumors about…”
  3. How long are you going to talk? Estimate how long will it take to finish the discussion. It may be difficult, but it’s worth to keep trying. Otherwise, your discussion may take most of the day.
  4. Have a detailed scenario – Prepare a script, like for any other negotiations or presentation. Have at least few steps on the list, but not too much.
  5. Visualize the meeting – tough conversation may be stressful, especially if you haven’t done a lot of them before. What can you do to overcome the stress? I suggest visualization technique, commonly used in mental training. Find a quiet and comfortable space for you, where you can go through the conversation in your mind. Repeat it many times, imagining how you both look like, what do you talk about, how do you feel. After few days of that training, you will feel comfortable during the final meeting, because your mind was there so many time, so it will be just like any other, standard activity.

During the meeting

Specific scenario depends on your preparation in the previous step, but you will find general recommendations for any kind of tough conversations:

  1. Make the introduction – person, who is invited to the meeting, usually has some picture of it already in mind (which might be totally wrong!). It’s good to start a conversation with brief introduction, like “I asked you for that meeting because I’ve seen that…”
  2. Stick to the plan – it’s easy to loose a control and skip some important topic or switch between them all the time. Have your plan with you during the conversation and correct the path if necessary.
  3. Keep a control – it’s your meeting, and you have some goals to achieve. Don’t let other person to interrupt you, or distract your attention from the main topic.
  4. Give short time for clarification – keeping a control doesn’t mean, that only you may talk. Plan some time for confirmation if everything is clear and there are no questions regarding to what you have already said. Be careful, because those questions may evolve in the longer discussion, so…
  5. Don’t start discussion – if some new problem is raised, make a note and cut of the discussion. Remember about the plan, having control and time restrictions!
  6. Avoid antagonizing language – you will get better results, when you focus on using ‘I’ statement, instead of ‘you’. The phrases like ‘you must’, ‘yes, but’, ‘you always’, ‘you never’ etc. are leading to the closed conversation, instead of honest and open one.
  7. Summarize and thanks – there must be some conclusion from any meeting. Keep it short and clear. At the end, don’t forget to say ‘thank you’.

After the meeting

  1. Create and distribute action items – as a result of your tough conversation, there should be some specific action items defined, like someone will reduce delays in tasks completion to maximum 20% in next month. Note them down and make sure that they are distributed to the right people.
  2. Control & give a feedback – keep track of the progress for action items and give a feedback when deadline is reached. It may be a short message (like: ‘good job!’) or you may repeat the meeting if there will be no progress.

At the end – don’t make those mistakes during your tough conversations:

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