Difficult conversations are not difficult because of their content. They are difficult because of the reactions we expect from the other.

The easy way to have difficult conversations

Most people don’t enjoy having a difficult conversation with someone else, leading to procrastination, sugar coating, or even hinting through emails or texts instead of having a real conversation. This only makes the situation more difficult and frustrating for all parties involved.

But what is it that makes a conversation difficult to begin with?

The difficult thing about difficult conversations

Difficult conversations are not difficult because of their content. They are difficult because of the reactions we expect from the other.

That reaction usually comes from mismatched expectations. Telling someone who thinks they are doing their work right that they will be fired if they don’t improve will probably generate a bad reaction. They thought all was good and didn’t expect that ultimatum.

This happens when we avoid minor feedback and corrections for too long. We know John wants to be promoted to a senior level when the opportunity comes. We know they don’t have the skill yet to be considered for that job. Yet, we don’t say anything. They might bring the topic informally during lunch and we don’t feel comfortable having that conversation in front of the whole team so we just smile and nod. When the position opens, we’ll need to have a difficult conversation with John. It will be difficult because we led them to believe that they had a chance when they didn’t, and now it is too late for them to change and improve, the opportunity won’t stay open for long.

Processes as enablers for difficult conversations

The solution to difficult conversations is managing expectations correctly.

Having a dedicated meeting where you can talk with your reportees about the things that matter to them in advance is the best way to stay in sync.

There is one thing that should matter to all employees, no matter their current situation: keeping their job. Be sure to talk about the things that are endangering that goal.

Have a weekly or bi-weekly meeting where there are 15 minutes of the agenda explicitly marked for giving your reportee feedback on their work. They should know that this is a safe place for you to tell them what they should improve and how important those things are. This will help you bring up stuff way before they are an issue.

If things escalate and become an issue, it won’t be news for either of you. You then can have what would have been a difficult conversation in a much easier way. Both of you will be aware of the issue and its importance and your reportee would have had plenty of time to revert it before getting to this point.

Difficult conversations with you

As you may be reluctant to have difficult conversations with your reportees, they probably feel the same way with you.

Use the same technique and schedule some time for them to tell you what you are doing wrong and what is jeopardizing their staying in the company.

Knowing that giving and receiving feedback is part of a recurrent process will make the situation easier for both of you.