How Business Owners Should Handle Difficult Conversations With Employees

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Despite popular belief, business owners are not necessarily born leaders. It can take a great deal of study, practice and effort to learn how to effectively run a business and manage employees. In particular, many business owners find it tough to learn how to handle difficult conversations with employees.

Shying away from conflict is normal for us as humans. It's the "flight" part of our fight-or-flight instinct. But avoiding an uncomfortable conversation is not really healthy for your business. Issues need to be addressed promptly before they snowball, and that means you need to be ready to have conversations, even tough ones, without hesitation.

Fortunately, you can learn and practice different strategies to help you have difficult conversations at work and even turn them into something positive.

Why Difficult Conversations Are Difficult

Why does it sometimes feel so hard to have a conversation? All we have to do is speak words to communicate. We often already have the words ready to go in our minds. So what's the problem?

Typically, we feel a strong emotion about the subject at hand or we worry about future emotions we'll feel during and after the conversation. It's normal to even feel anxious about how the other person will react. It's this emotional state that causes us to assign the label "difficult" to the conversation in the first place.

Therefore, one of the keys to successfully having a difficult conversation involves separating our emotions from the facts of the matter at hand. You need to give feedback to employees so that the company can continue to operate efficiently and so that the employees can grow. This is, in reality, a very good thing to accomplish. Still, you need some tangible strategies for getting in the right mindset to get it done.

How to Separate Emotion From Facts

Avoiding emotion is easier said than done, but you can accomplish it by sticking to the facts. Prepare for the difficult conversation by taking some time to figure out what the facts actually are. If you need to vent some emotion, talk to a friend or family member rather than someone at work. This helps avoid the potential for gossip.

Once your own emotional frustrations are clear, you can start to think more rationally. What exactly is the problem and how does it affect the company? Always think in terms of the company rather than thinking about how someone's behavior affects you personally. This helps to keep emotion from clouding your thinking.

Other Tips to Keep in Mind

When having difficult conversations, you want to also achieve the following:

  • Be direct and succinct. Do not get sidetracked into a tangent or rant.
  • Put the onus on the employee to take charge of the solution. Usually these conversations have to happen because someone caused a problem, so they have the responsibility of solving it.
  • Listen actively but do not feel like you need to bring your emotions into it, even if the other person gets emotional.
  • Control your tone of voice to prevent emotion from creeping in.

Tried-and-True Process for Difficult Conversations

Still wondering how in the world you're going to have this conversation? Fortunately, executive coach Dr. Myron Beard has a very straightforward formula for virtually any difficult conversation at work. In two succinct and direct sentences, you clarify why you're talking to someone and explain why it's important to the company. Then, you ask a very important question: "What are you going to do about it?"

Clarifying and Explaining Why

The first two steps of Dr. Beard's process are easy to prepare ahead of time. Start by clarifying why you've come to talk to the other person, and then explain why the problem affects the company. Here's a possible example:

"Bob, I've come to talk to you today because your report is late. The clients are expecting that report by the end of the day and if they're not happy, it could really affect the company's bottom line."

At this point, Bob is keenly aware that his behavior has caused a problem. Although you can't read the tone of the paragraph, imagine it being said with as little emotion as possible. It's just to the point, not panicked, angry, sarcastic, etc.

Asking the Big Question

The next step in the process involves asking the main question: "What are you going to do about it?"

It can be tricky to sit and wait for the employee to answer this question, but it's important to not offer up any solutions at this point. For employees to really grow from this experience, they need to claim responsibility for their mistake and take care of fixing it.

Be Prepared for Excuses

It's hard being put on the spot and called out for a mistake, so it's natural for employees to feel a need to offer up explanations or excuses at this point. They might even play the blame game.

Don't get caught up in this. You asked a straightforward question, and you need an answer. Keep asking it: "What are you going to do about it?"

Guiding the Employee Toward a Solution

Although your goal is to let the employee come up with a solution, you can still offer guidance. The first solution that's offered up might be paper-thin. If you can see right through it as all talk and no substance, Dr. Beard recommends saying, "Yes, you can do that. What else can you do?"

Repeat this until the employee takes appropriate ownership and also reaches a solution that you believe is useful.

Note that saying "Yes, and ..." has a more positive connotation than saying, "Yes, but ..." Pay attention to the language you use. Try to say "Yes, and ..." in many situations throughout your life to make it feel like second nature, but be especially mindful during difficult conversations.

Closing Out the Conversation

Once you feel like the employee has proposed a good solution, you can ask the final question: "How can I help you?"

A common mistake managers make is asking this question too early in the conversation. The employee never feels the weight of needing to analyze and correct the mistake, which helps to ensure it doesn't happen again. Asking "How can I help?" too early means you, the business owner or manager, take on tasks and responsibilities that you don't need added to your plate.

But asking it at the end ensures you're only asked to do things that you actually need to do, like providing additional resources for a project.

Difficult Conversations With Peers and Higher-Ups

If you have to have difficult conversations with peers or higher-ups, Dr. Beard recommends making one minor change to your language. Instead of saying, "What are you going to do about it?" ask, "What are we going to do about it?" This reinforces the fact that you are not trying to manage your peers or higher-ups like you do with an employee, which would be resented by these colleagues.

Practice Makes It Easier

You might still feel uncomfortable having difficult conversations even when following the above tips and procedures. However, the good news is that if you really stick with it and continue to show your employees that you will keep asking "What are you going to do about it?" they will give you fewer and fewer excuses each time you need to have a difficult conversation.

They'll also trust you to address problems fairly and without emotion, which can increase their feeling of stability in the workplace. It's worth learning how to have difficult conversations to succeed as a manager and leader.

References

About the Author

Cathy Habas specializes in marketing, customer experiences, and behind-the-scenes management. Cathy has contributed to sites like Business and Finance, Business 2 Community, and Inside Small Business. She served as the managing editor for a small content marketing agency before continuing with her writing career.