Leadership Advice

Managers: 4 important things to remember about difficult conversations

Advice from Jill Geisler, Bill Plante Chair in Leadership & Media Integrity, Loyola University Chicago and Freedom Forum Fellow in Women’s Leadership

Managers often struggle with difficult conversations. They put off talking about performance issues because they don’t feel fully prepared, don’t believe it will make things better, or just don’t like confrontation.

We’re not helping people when we keep our concerns to ourselves; we’re denying people a chance to learn and grow. It doesn’t mean they’ll accept our negative feedback unquestioningly, in fact, they may be defensive and unhappy. It happens. That’s why it’s important to be prepared to provide objective data — examples, specifics — not to beat people up with “gotchas” but to offer measurable things they can change.

But even with that goal, of being clear and specific in negative feedback, you need to bring a few more goals into each tough conversation.

  • Respect the human dignity of the person you’re talking with. This isn’t about punishing people. Avoid sarcasm, hyperbole, and condescension. (Even if you are firing a person for wrongdoing, the termination needn’t be delivered with a side order of humiliation.)
  • Resist the temptation to win a debate. If you are someone who loves to get the last word, you may try to slap down the other person’s responses rather than listen to them. People are often defensive when criticized. The person whom you’re talking to about late arrivals to meetings may respond by telling you the meetings run too long and achieve too little. Don’t start a verbal war over that point. Go back to your original message, “We need you there on time AND we can review our meeting process to see if we can improve it.”
  • Don’t expect rainbows to appear at the end of tough talks. Some people may thank you for pointing out a gap in their performance or sharing the news that they didn’t get the promotion they wanted. But don’t count on it. People need time to process negative information. If you’re a person who wants to be liked, prepare for people who are unhappy to act that way toward you in the moment. But today’s tough conversation can lead to many more better ones, if you do them right. Plan for a follow-up, which is something managers can let fall through the cracks and shouldn’t, because it is where the real growth begins.
  • Think of tough conversations as part of a continuum of feedback. Be sure you are giving a healthy diet of the positive stuff, so people know you are as apt to cheer their accomplishments as you are to tell them when they’re getting in their own way.

Keep in mind that we tend to remember negative feedback more than positive, because criticism touches some sensitive nerves. If I ask you to tell me about a criticism that still stays with you, I can bet you’ll be able to roll one out with ease. Our emotions cause memories of critiques to be more vivid. By comparison, hearing “Hey, nice job today” doesn’t have that longer-lasting impact.

So, build your social capital by providing specific and sincere positive feedback whenever possible. Enlist colleagues in making sure you, as a busy manager, don’t miss knowing about something praiseworthy. When people know you are as willing to acknowledge what works as well as what needs work, they may not love being on the receiving end of your corrective conversations, but it will make them at least a little less tough for all parties.


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Yvonne Simons
Yvonne Simons
2 years ago

Jill, I remember from a Poynter Training, and reinforced in your book, that specific compliments are necessary. I used to toss around a lot of “Good jobs” and you’re right. They don’t stick. If I catch myself tossing one out there, I try to immediately follow up with, “Here’s why that was great….” and be specific. It really
makes a difference.

Jill Geisler
Jill Geisler
2 years ago
Reply to  Yvonne Simons

Hi Yvonne! That specificity helps prove your sincerity – and I mean that sincerely, my friend! 🙂