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Choosing the Right Words for 3 Difficult Workplace Conversations

The ability to give praise for a job well done and to promote hard-working employees may be among your preferred conversations. But, at times, being a supervisor/manager makes it unavoidable to be the bearer of bad tidings. Though you may not be able to change the content of negative messages, your delivery has a major impact on how your words are perceived by the listener.

Difficult conversations can feel uncomfortable and hazardous and because of that we tend to avoid having them. The secret to successfully handling these tough topics is learning to talk about them in the right way.

Here’s how to choose the right words for some of those tense conversations supervisors/managers can’t avoid.

What you want to say: “You’re not meeting my expectations.”
What you should say: “How do you feel about the projects you’ve worked on in the last six months?”

Confronting an employee about his or her performance is a sensitive conversation. You may (and should) have plenty of written evidence to support your view. Regardless of the details, the employee is likely to react emotionally.

Performance-related or disciplinary-based conversations demand that you choose words that mitigate the level of emotion, according to Linda Hill, author and professor at Harvard Business School. Hill suggests using strategic pronouns to own your perspective throughout the discussion. For example, instead of “You’ve had a lot on your plate and you must be really stressed,” say “I know I feel really stressed when I have a long to do list. How do you feel?”

Hill explains that making assumptions about how your employee feels adds fuel to the emotional fire—even if your intent is to express empathy. Instead, ask the employee to own and express his or her viewpoint; listen without interruption. You don’t have to agree, but it will keep the conversation more professional and productive.

What you want to say: “I disagree with your approach and can’t let you or the team move forward with it.”
What you should say: “Can you help me understand how we’re approaching X?”

When you empower employees to own their projects and make decisions without your involvement, they are more likely to feel engaged and happy at work. Yet, you’re ultimately held accountable for their decisions. So how do you let employees know when you don’t agree with their approach, without making them feel defeated or micromanaged?

Approach the conversation so they have to explain the details. As they walk you through the finer points of the plan, ask probing questions like “I’m wondering what might happen if we did X.” Ideally, that conversation should help them identify potential blind spots and points of risk they failed to realize. Even if they don’t, you can use the conversation to give them the necessary feedback that leads to course correction—without making them feel their plans were derailed entirely.

What you want to say: “Leadership changed direction, and all the work you’ve done on this project the last several months was for nothing.”
What you should say: “I believe we’ve come up with an even better solution for the initiative you’ve been working so hard on. This is how our team is involved with it moving forward.”

Although changes in direction from higher ups can be frustrating for your team, a supervisor/manager needs to act like the public relations guru of sorts for leadership.

Communicate direction from upper management in a way that instills respect for leadership decisions among your team (even if you secretly disagree). Explain the reasons behind decisions, the options that were and were not chosen, and how the new direction ties into your team’s responsibility—even if it’s on a smaller scale than the original plan.

Though weeks of your team’s hard work may be for naught when leadership changes course unexpectedly, don’t let your employees see your frustration. Listen to your employees’ concerns, but encourage them to realize that the new direction will lead to better results for all involved. Employees who believe their roles are intertwined with the goals of the broader organization tend to feel more strongly about the importance of their tasks.

To help you with these unavoidable conversations, it’s very important to understand how people are going to respond when they actually are stressed or when they don’t know something. Do they know how to ask for help, and then do they reach out? Another thing that’s very important is to have these conversations as soon as you see that problem — don’t wait around thinking that things will change.

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