Master Difficult Conversations

2.) Think carefully about where and when to have a conversation. Some managers prefer to host these conversations away from the office because it creates some anonymity. However, this tactic may not be beneficial if you suspect that the employee may start crying, or become upset in the middle of a restaurant. In such instances, a private space may be more appropriate. When it comes to the best time for discussion, start the dialogue towards the end of the day. Think how an employee might feel if you pose a possible career-changing question at 10:00 a.m., and then expect him or her to work efficiently for the rest of the day. In the event you have that conversation over dinner in a restaurant, remember that you’re still having a workplace conversation. Thus, you are still a manager talking to an employee, and not two friends having a chat.

3.) Don’t make assumptions that the employee knows what you are talking about. Sometimes, an individual is not aware of a specific behavior and how it affects others. Therefore, approach the situation assuming that he or she is not aware, and you are there to present “the big picture.” Opening up a dialogue may even reveal that your own behavior has played some role in the problem.

4.) Explore ideas instead of offering suggestions. Let’s assume you are having a conversation with an employee who has already been passed over for a promotion and is complaining to you about it. At this point, remember to do more listening than talking, and try to help the individual brainstorm, rather than make recommendations. And don’t forget that although you are trying to have a heart-to-heart conversation, you are still the manager. Whenever you’re not sure what to do or say, don’t forget you are not alone. Talk to the human-relations people. They can help you avoid the sandbank, and if necessary, try to pull you out!

5.) Regardless of the topic, recognize there are some typical triggers for conflict. Two of the most common are lack of respect (i.e., self-respect and/or respect from others) and the fear that the person is not in control (defined as freedom to exercise free will). Now, add to these triggers the fact that the employee is interpreting information about your emotions and intentions from your words and body language. The potential for conflict increases. There is a high probability that the employee will misread these emotions and intentions. In contrast, a heart-to-heart conversation aims to interact with an individual in a manner that protects his or her dignity, self-esteem, and independence in order to resolve an issue. In most lawsuits, it is the perceived insult of inappropriate treatment that motivates an employee to seek “justice” via the courts, rather than the employer’s specific disciplinary actions. So, treat an employee with respect, especially when delivering “bad news.”

The bottom line is that having a sensitive conversation is a skill managers should have, as it helps enrich relationships and reduces the possibility of an employee misreading emotions and intentions. Furthermore, it helps establish respect and control as the driving forces behind words and actions.

Dr. Tatiana Chalkidou is a post-doctoral fellow at Oklahoma State University, working in different park-management projects. She holds a Ph.D. from Oklahoma State University in Health, Leisure, and Human Performance, a M.BA. and a M.Sc. in Human Resources Management and Development from University of Leicester in the UK, and a B.S. in Physical Education and Sport Science from University of Athens, Greece. She can be reached via email at

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