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How to Hold a Difficult Conversation

Providing Responsible Feedback Is Difficult

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Difficult Conversations Are Critical to Workplace Harmony

An Occasional Difficult Conversation Is Critical to Workplace Harmony

iStockphoto / Jacob Wackerhausen

If you manage people, work in Human Resources, or care about your friends at work, chances are good that one day you will need to hold a difficult conversation.

People dress inappropriately and unprofessionally for work. Personal hygiene is sometimes unacceptable. Flirtatious behavior can lead to a sexual harassment problem. A messy desk is not the sign of an organized mind. Unreturned pop cans do draw ants.

Vulgar language is unprofessional. Revealing cleavage belongs in a club, a party, or on the beach. Leaving dirty dishes for others to wash is rude.

Have you encountered any of these examples? They're just samples of the types of behavior that cry out for responsible feedback. These steps will help you hold difficult conversations when people need professional feedback.

Steps to Provide Feedback in a Difficult Conversation

  • Seek permission to provide the feedback. Even if you are the employee's boss, start by stating you have some feedback you'd like to share. Ask if it's a good time or if the employee would prefer to select another time and place. (Within reason, of course.)

  • Use a soft entry. Don't dive right into the feedback - give the person a chance to brace for potentially embarrassing feedback. Tell the employee that you need to provide feedback that is difficult to share. If you're uncomfortable with your role in the conversation, you might say that, too. Most people are as uncomfortable providing feedback about an individual's personal dress or habits, as the person receiving the feedback.

  • Often, you are in the feedback role because other employees have complained to you about the habit, behavior, or dress. Do not give in to the temptation to amplify the feedback, or excuse your responsibility for the feedback, by stating that a number of coworkers have complained. This heightens the embarrassment and harms the recovery of the person receiving feedback.

  • The best feedback is straightforward and simple. Don't beat around the bush. I am talking with you because this is an issue that you need to address for success in this organization.

  • Tell the person the impact that changing his or her behavior will have from a positive perspective. Tell the employee how choosing to do nothing will affect their career and job.

  • Reach agreement about what the individual will do to change their behavior. Set a due date - tomorrow, in some cases. Set a time frame to review progress in others.

  • Follow-up. The fact that the problem exists means that backsliding is possible; further clarification may also be necessary. Then, more feedback and possibly, disciplinary action are possible next steps.

You can become effective at holding difficult conversations. Practice and these steps will help build your comfort level to hold difficult conversations. After all, a difficult conversation can make the difference between success and failure for a valued employee. Care enough to hold the difficult conversation.

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