Difficult Conversations: What Not to Say Avoid common pitfalls that can make hard conversations even harder.

By Amy S. Choi

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.


Broaching difficult conversations with your staff can be, well, difficult. That said, as our experts have explained, some basic rules do apply: Never raise your voice. Keep potentially embarrassing conversations private. Stay onsite, not leaving for lunch, trapping you both in an uncomfortable situation for an hour when a conversation could just take 10 minutes. Make sure that the seating arrangement eases, not exacerbates, the power structure by sitting at a round table or two chairs facing each other. Have tissues handy.

But most of all, remember that each employee and conversation is different, and you can ease a lot of tension by acknowledging that the conversation might be awkward for you both. And while there are no perfect scripts you can use -- despite myriad human resources books promising otherwise -- having some language in your back pocket to soothe ruffled egos and focus the discussion can be helpful.

Here are a few common conversation pitfalls and how to avoid them.

1. To the staffer who's talking, not listening
You're tempted to say: "Don't interrupt me!"
Instead say: "I'm going to pause for a second and let's both take a breath."
It's important because: As a leader in the company, you need to take the lead in the conversation. Emphasizing that you are both taking a breath to relax and collect your thoughts shows that you're not laying blame on your employee, says Donna Rogers, founder of Rogers HR Consulting. Lay out your expectations for the talk, explaining, "I'm going to clarify my thoughts for you, and afterwards you'll have the opportunity to ask me any questions you have." Directing the agenda demonstrates your leadership and your commitment to finding a solution.
What else to keep in mind: Silence can indeed be golden. She suggests you reschedule the chat if you both can't chat calmly, explaining you'll reconnect when the talk can be more productive.

2. To the staffer who behaves inappropriately
You're tempted to say: "You need to be more professional."
Instead say: "Our company guidelines require that you adhere to specific standards," followed by pointing to your company manual or human resources book about specific behaviors.
It's important because: It takes the conversation from subjective to objective, says Susan Strayer LaMotte, founder of exaqueo, a workplace consultancy. "Professional," whether in regards to behavior, dress, grooming, or language, is vague, as are words like "involved," "enthusiastic," and "good." If you want to be able to hold your employees accountable to certain standards, clarity about those standards is paramount. That way, a discussion that can be taken personally-- say, about whether a person's fashion choices are professional -- can be made into one about company guidelines about what is acceptable office attire.
What else to keep in mind: This strategy is most effective if you actually have a company manual. It's crucial to have policies in place to set expectations, and if you don't, this is a great time to put these in place. If you don't yet, offer up specific examples of your own behavior to set the standard. And get working on a manual.

3. To the staffer who is angry and ready to unload
You're tempted to say: "Okay, since you feel so strongly about this we can talk about it a little longer."
Instead say: "I'm sorry you feel that way. You're welcome to submit your statement in writing."
It's important because: You don't want to open the conversation up into a long, drawn-out argument, says Jennifer McClure, president of Unbridled Talent. As the person delivering awkward or unpleasant news to a staffer, you often try to make yourself feel better by giving the employee time to defend themselves, but this often disintegrates into an arguing and finger pointing. This then puts you in a defensive posture. "It almost always goes south the more explanation you provide," says McClure. "If then you get some small fact wrong, it then distracts from the actual conversation and you are both on the defensive."
What else to keep in mind: You can let your employee air out their frustrations, and express empathy, but remember not to get emotional as the conversation gets more heated. If the staffer starts launching into personal attacks or putting blame on you or others, it's time to end the conversation. In the future, take the time to have regular conversations with staffers on issues as they arise, so anger and frustration doesn't build.

Wavy Line

Amy S. Choi is a freelance journalist based in Brooklyn, N.Y. Her work has appeared in BusinessWeek, Women’s Wear Daily and the Wall Street Journal, among other publications. She is currently working on a book about her travels through the developing world

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