How to Have Tough Conversations in the Workplace (Without Burning Bridges)


Insights for ProfessionalsThe latest thought leadership for Management pros

Monday, January 8, 2018

Running your own business can often mean having difficult conversations with employees but how do you do it without jeopardizing your relationships?

Article 3 Minutes
How to Have Tough Conversations in the Workplace (

Having your own business can be a challenge, although it's also incredibly rewarding, especially when it comes to having those conversations no one wants to have. Whether it's disciplining an employee, giving bad news, or denying them a promotion they had their heart set on, tough conversations are often part of your job.

But how do you say what needs to be said without burning bridges?

Choose your spot

You need to make sure you choose the setting for your conversation carefully. You should ensure it's suitably private and out of earshot. Publicly airing employees' problems will earn you no favors, no matter how 'casual' you intend the chat to be. You may also want to consider whether your spot is too secluded or if you need someone to accompany you or them, depending on the nature of your discussion.

Have a plan

To avoid any awkward silences or flustering, it's important that you go into the meeting with a plan. This should cover what the main objective of the talk is, and what you want the outcome to be. Although you don't need to stick regimentally to your plan, it's a good way to make sure you discuss everything you have to get through and that you don't get sidetracked.

Leave time for questions

Any difficult talk should have at least one section where you let the individual ask any questions they want to. Not only does this help you to understand how they're feeling about the situation, and give them a chance to respond, it also allows them to process the news. If they don't want to ask anything, it's a good idea to direct questions to them, such as 'how do you feel' or 'what do you think'. Employees can often shut down when they hear bad news and this will help you to understand how they are reacting to the meeting.

Be clear

It's important that the language you use is clear and direct. Don't try to soften the blow of what you're saying by using euphemisms and metaphors, which can easily lead to confusion and will make the entire situation worse. You should make sure you explain any terms that may be ambiguous or unclear and keep an eye on their facial expressions to see if they are understanding what you're telling them.

Avoid being accusatory

Even if you're certain of what the outcome of the meeting may be, you need to use this conversation as a time to get their point of view. It's important to keep your tone as open and understanding as possible, even if you are there to discipline them. This will help them not feel attacked by the conversation and they will be more likely to be honest with you.

Long-term working relationships

These steps should make it easier for you to have tough conversations with your employees, while protecting your long-term relations with them. However, it's worth noting that not dealing with issues involving a single member of staff could jeopardize your relationship with the rest of your company.

Whether it's a disciplinary matter or not, it's important that you are consistent with your approach and that you deal with issues head on. Otherwise you could lose the respect of your other employees by trying to avoid problems with an individual.

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