Managing Difficult Conversations

Embrace tough conversations to improve business results 

When team members fall short of expectations or choose behaviors that decrease performance and hurt business results, they need to know. Yet many leaders succumb to the human tendency to avoid conflict. Learning to handle tough conversations with purpose, intention and kindness can drive better performance, teamwork and morale. “We put the business and careers at risk when we deny people the feedback and tools to improve,” says Red Robin’s Abby Gilbertson.  

Deliver feedback that actually helps   

“We associate critical conversations with disappointing people or making someone feel bad but we need to flip that script,” advises Abby Gilbertson, Vice President of Corporate & Franchise Development for Red Robin Gourmet Burgers & Brews. “A more effective approach is to view feedback, even when difficult, as a gift that enables someone’s success.” 

A different approach 

The way you frame difficult conversations in your own mind is a good place to start. “When we see feedback as a learning opportunity and a way to help someone improve, it changes the whole dynamic of the conversation,” Gilbertson adds. “Feedback done well shows someone you believe in them, want them to stay, are confident they can improve and that you will work with them to facilitate that improvement.”  

Honesty and understanding 

Not fond of the ‘sandwich approach’ where you wrap difficult feedback in a positive statement before and after you deliver it, Gilbertson suggests basic human understanding and honesty. “We can all understand how someone might feel receiving negative feedback,” Gilbertson says. “Treating that person with respect and understanding can ease the process and enable them to be open to constructive ideas.”  

You might, for example, offer someone a few moments alone after raising a difficult issue to collect his or her thoughts and manage emotions. Next, focus on facts that bring the feedback to life. Finally, talk about next steps and support available to improve outcomes. “You don’t want a team member leaving the conversation feeling they are about to be fired when in fact you are pointing to specific skills that can be addressed,” Gilbertson cautions.  

Approach difficult conversations this way: 

Forge strong relationships 

Challenging conversations become even more difficult if they do not take place within a strong working relationship. Building bridges with team members and colleagues over time and focusing on points of agreement and positive aspects of the work relationship can help set the stage for a positive give and take. 

Seize the moment 

Although it makes sense to take time to get emotions in check and think through the feedback you want to share, don’t leave situations to fester. Unaddressed problems grow and can lead to greater resentment and misunderstanding.  

Plan the conversation carefully 

Think through the specific information and examples you want to share and consider how the person may react and what questions they are likely to have. The more prepared you are, the more comfortable and focused you will remain, enabling you to provide effective feedback even if the person becomes angry or defensive.  

Pick the right setting 

Make sure you have the bandwidth to be focused and unhurried and that the employee is not staring down an immediate deadline. Also ensure total privacy. Consider whether talking shortly before lunch or the end of the work day might offer a chance to process and reset before the team member returns to work. But don’t raise a difficult topic right before you head out of town or the team member goes on vacation. There should be opportunities to touch base again soon to clarify points or continue the conversation.  

Choose your words wisely 

Be specific in how you explain problem behaviors and outcomes without exaggerating the issue, minimizing it or speaking in broad generalities that don’t truly inform. If you have trouble being direct, craft key phrases ahead of time and test them with a trusted peer. Using fuzzy language will create confusion and increase anxiety. Finally, paint a vivid picture of what success look like. This gives the employee something solid to work toward and provides you both with guideposts to gauge success.  

Listen and learn.  

You have important information to share but the recipient may also have valuable input. This isn’t a time for excuses, but you can listen with an open mind to learn about obstacles to improving individual and team performance.  

Expect feedback yourself 

“Becoming effective at having difficult conversations starts with looking in the mirror,” Gilbertson says. “Navigating difficult conversations as the receiver is great training for becoming a better giver of challenging feedback.”  

Embracing difficult conversations can open up opportunities to grow, help others improve and drive better team and business performance.   

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