Mastering Tough Conversations

He sat across from me, with a look that told me he knew something was coming and it wasn’t good.  His mouth was neutral, but there was a fearful look in his eyes.  I took a deep breath.  I knew this was a termination meeting.  There had been performance problems for some time.  He was in the wrong job.  We had talked about it more than once.  This time he had crossed over a line, one which couldn’t be ignored.  I had to fire him.

I had steeled myself for this conversation.  I knew the facts, I’d checked the policies, I’d rehearsed it in my mind.  Yet I wondered.  Had I done enough?  This man had family.  He was fundamentally a good person.  Why did he do what he’d done?  Could I have prevented it by being clearer in expectations and consequences, more encouraging when good things happened, given more concise and helpful feedback?

I knew his situation wasn’t my fault.  Yet, even as a seasoned leader, I wondered how I could do better.  While I didn’t doubt myself, I did reflect on whether this situation could have been avoided and if I, in my leadership role, could have done something differently.

Difficult people.  Difficult conversations.  They frequently trip up even the most seasoned leaders.

 Avoidance, defensiveness, over-reliance on positional power…all are unhelpful techniques for dealing with difficult people and difficult situations.  The situation doesn’t go away.  An untended problem only gets worse.

 As leaders we must learn to face challenging people and circumstances with courage, but also with compassion and healthy confronting of the issue at hand.

 This is a deep topic and one we deal with in the upcoming Elevate Your Leadership Skills virtual program.  We’ll cover it in more depth there, but here are a few starter tips to get you thinking about whether you’ve mastered difficult conversations.

  1. Know the difference between coaching and feedback and when to use each. Coaching helps the employee gain personal insight whereas feedback is much more specific and direct guidance.  They both have a place and leaders need to be skilled at both.
  2. Stay on point with the conversation.  What is the desired outcome?  We need to recognize when to pivot and adapt, all while staying on point with the message and working towards the desired outcome.  Avoid the conversation being highjacked by the other person.
  3. Recognize emotions, both yours and the other person’s. Paying attention to how emotions are impacting the conversation is critical. It requires awareness of self and others, but also how to respond appropriately for the situation. In the Elevate Your Leadership Skills program we delve into emotional intelligence and give you the opportunity to learn more about how you respond and use your emotions in the workplace.
  4. Show respect. Respect is not synonymous with nice.  Too often we get hung up on being nice.  Yet it is possible to engage in difficult conversations with respect and compassion.

Tough conversations and difficult people are a fact of life inside and outside the workplace.  When we avoid the situation, we become stressed, resentful, frustrated, angry.  Learning how to lead through the challenge can bring you better working relationships, and a sense of confidence and peace.

For more info on Elevate Your Leadership Skills program click here.

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Susan Hodge

Susan Hodge

Susan Hodge created Women Leading Together in order to provide one-on-one executive coaching, seminars, workshops, and coaching circles to help career women move forward to create fulfilling professional lives. Visit our website for upcoming programs, articles, and resources to advance your career.


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