The Difficult Conversation: How It’s Done Tactfully

Posted April 2, 2013 by Marcy Twete in On the Ladder

Throughout your career, especially as you rise into management, you will encounter the need to have difficult conversations. These conversations might be about an employee’s performance, the delivery plan of a partner, your own schedule or needs, and many other hot button issues. If you research difficult conversations, you’ll find that experts speak openly about the fact that the human “fight or flight” instinct arises whenever difficult situations do as well. Our instinct when having a difficult conversation (regardless of whether you’re on the side of starting the conversation or receiving feedback), is to do one of two things – get defensive or run away.

So how do you have a difficult conversation without fighting or fleeing? Try these tips:

The Absolute Musts of a Difficult Conversation

  • Put your relationship first. Remember, the person sitting across from you in that conversation has a relationship with you. Do everything you can and base everything you say on the fact that you want to preserve the relationship.
  • Go in with the end in mind. We flee or fight during difficult conversations mostly because we’re afraid of the conversation. Instead, focus on the outcome. If you can frame the conversation by thinking of the good outcomes that will happen a month or a year from now because of the conversation, you’ll have a much more positive attitude in your interaction.
  • Schedule the conversation and be clear about what you’ll be discussing. Too often, we try to have difficult conversations during a time when we encounter a difficult moment. This is the absolute wrong time to address an issue. Instead, you must do it later when you’re calm and can have a rational conversation that is productive instead of reactive.

The Absolute Don’t’s of a Difficult Conversation

  • Don’t get emotional. This is a hard one for a lot of women. It’s easy to get upset and even allow yourself to tear up when you’re dealing with high stress conversations. Take a deep breath and calm down, you’ll get through it.
  • Don’t take the blame. When you’re having a tough conversation, the person you’re talking to might get defensive. In that instance, it’s easy to start taking the blame on yourself. You might say, “Well, perhaps I could have done things differently.” Stick to your guns! You know why you’re having the conversation. Have it!
  • Control the gossip. Some difficult conversations mean letting someone go. When this happens, it’s only natural that gossip will run rampant. Be careful in these instances to control that gossip by being professional and calm about every situtation.

Ultimately, the biggest tip you need to take away from this article about difficult conversations is this. Have them. Sweeping something under the rug will always make the situation worse, not better. Take the time and have the respect for the individuals and staff members around you to have the difficult conversations when they are needed and approach them with tact and professionalism.

About the Author

Marcy Twete

Marcy Twete is a career fundraiser turned corporate responsibility executive, a career and networking expert and the author of the book "You Know Everybody! A Career Girl’s Guide to Building a Network That Works."