Have you ever put off a conversation with a co-worker or an employee because you knew it was going to be awkward or difficult? Like giving negative feedback or overcoming workplace friction? There have probably been those moments when you knew you should talk to someone, but you didn’t. It’s possible you’ve tried before, and it went badly. Because we’ve all had negative experiences in this regard, whether on the giving or receiving side of things, there will always be that fear of making the situation worse or even the fear of dealing with a defensive person.

If you’re like me, the last thing you want to do is micro-manage your team. But at some point or another, we all have to have those tough and crucial conversations with them. You’ll have to invite employees into your office for a performance review. Maybe you’ll have to discuss why expectations are not being met, set goals and action plans for improvement, tell them they have an odor or explain their language doesn’t fit in with your culture. No matter what you tell them, you just hope they don’t get too defensive and start any drama with the rest of the team.

What I’d like to do is outline four different areas we should all think about and ideally practice before going into a tough conversation. You and I don’t have to be perfect, but I want us all to be committed to improving and becoming the best leaders we can be. We are all human and the ball will be dropped, but it is important to check in with ourselves and do a self-assessment of where we are and where we want to go as a leader.

No. 1: Prepare

People don’t just wake up in the morning thinking “How can I screw things up today?” So, when friction happens or someone you work with pushes your buttons, it is important to remember to not make assumptions about this person’s intentions. This is way easier said than done, but that is why we check in with ourselves. I really like what Shari Harley says about providing feedback: “Feedback is either to change behavior or replicate it. There are no other reasons.”

Before ever going into a difficult conversation with someone, it is important to ask yourselves these questions and write your answers down — writing it down really makes you think about it — so that you are able to determine what/if any behavior needs to change or if it is just you overanalyzing something:

  • What buttons are being pushed and why?
  • What is the purpose for going into this conversation and what is the result I want from it?
  • How have I contributed to the problem? and
  • What examples do I have that support my reasoning to have this conversation?

If we don’t answer these questions for ourselves before we jump into a difficult conversation, we will most likely come across as critical, condescending or bossy. The conversation will go south quickly, and it will end up more like a punishment rather than being support and solution minded.

No. 2: Invite

After you have practiced and prepared yourself for a difficult conversation, it is now time to invite your employee to chat. Make sure that you are considerate of their schedule and their space. Calling them into your office can often be more intimidating than you going to their office.

Here are a couple of ways to invite the person to have a conversation with you:

  • There is something that has been on my mind, and I’d like to get your point of view about it. Do you have a few minutes to chat?
  • It’s important for me that we can all work successfully together, so I’d like to get your thoughts about _______. It seems we have differing perspectives and I’d like to come up with a game plan that works for everyone. When can we talk more? or
  • I probably should have said something sooner, and I apologize I didn’t. I have something I think we should talk more about, and I really want to hear your thoughts and feelings on the topic and share my side as well. Are you busy?

No. 3: Discover

Always go into these conversations with an attitude of curiosity. It is very important to be patient, humble and ask questions so that you don’t come across as a difficult leader. You want to facilitate a discussion that will lead to proactive solutions, not have someone stomping off ready to quit.

One thing to note: please make sure you avoid using the Feedback Sandwich Method. This is where you give a positive, then a negative, then a positive again. DO NOT DO THIS.

When both types of feedback are given at the same time, it can often confuse the other person as to your intentions. For one, they won’t believe any compliment you give them. Make sure your message is clear and not jumbled. Giving frequent, positive feedback is vital to making sure that the negative feedback conversations are successful. Oftentimes we get used to people doing a good job that we don’t feel the need to acknowledge them. So, make sure that you are very intentional about having positive conversations and rewarding the behavior you want so that it can be repeated over and over again.

Here are some of my favorite phrases to use when going into a tough conversation:

  • I’ve noticed …;
  • Tell me more about …; or
  • What are your thoughts?

Let me demonstrate how I would use this if I had to talk to a co-worker about being consistently late to work. For all intents and purposes, I will call her Jane.

INVITE: Hey Jane! There is something that has been on my mind, and I’d like to get your point of view about it. Do you have a few minutes to chat? (Jane says yes).

DISCOVER: I’ve noticed these past couple of months that you have been clocking in late about 2-3 times per week. Can you tell me more about that? (or “what are your thoughts on that?”)

This is where I really like how Judy Ringer puts the discovery process: “Pretend you’re entertaining a visitor from another planet and find out how things look on that planet, how certain events affect the other person, and what the values and priorities are there.”

I want to once again be patient and humble while Jane describes to me her reasoning behind being late. It is very important that I listen to everything she says, acknowledge it and thank her for sharing. It’s possible that she might get defensive — or even I might get defensive depending on what she says. But getting defensive can often be a good thing — it means the other person cares.

No. 4: Solutions and expectations

Next, it is important to continue asking questions to come up with a solution together. If it’s just your idea, it’s less likely to be implemented. Feel free to set expectations right now — and always follow it up with the why. Here are some of my favorite phrases to use in this step:

  • In my experience …
  • So that …
  • What can we do to make this work? or
  • How would you handle this situation?

EXPECTATIONS: In my experience, having everyone here by 8 a.m. will ensure a successful workflow between all departments so that we all participate in providing a great experience for our customers. What do you think will work in making sure you can be here with the team on time each morning?

Make sure you pause and let them talk at this point. If they share some ideas, that’s great! Build off that, ask more questions and go back to the discovery process, if needed. Work together to create solutions and results. As Cy Wakeman says, “Your job as a leader is to manage the energy, not the people.”

You’ve got this.