Ask An Advisor: Pointers on Having Difficult Conversations

As an HR Knowledge Advisor, I often receive questions on how to go about having a difficult conversation with an employee. The reason why this topic is so popular is because many HR professionals feel uncomfortable when faced with having to speak to employees about matters ranging from performance issues to internal investigations.

I would like to share some methods that have helped me in planning for and conducting these types of conversations.

First, just breathe. This conversation is not comfortable for you or the employee. But you will be setting the tone of the meeting, so employees will look to you and often reflect what they are observing and hearing. The calmer you are during the meeting, the better you will be at handling the conversation. Reframing the conversation from one considered “difficult” to one labeled more positively will make you less nervous and allow you to conduct the meeting in a calm fashion.

Thinking through the purpose and realistic outcome of the meeting is also important. Take some time beforehand to review the subject matter and think through the main points that need to be expressed to the employee, along with expected outcomes. Consider the following questions: What is the purpose of the meeting (i.e., what main points do you want to convey)? What facts support any concerns? What are the expectations going forward (be as specific as possible)?

How one delivers the messaging is important. If the topic is of a sensitive nature, then come from a place of empathy, show compassion and be considerate. The employee’s response may not always be pleasant but managing the conversation from an honest and equitable perspective will encourage openness and a more receptive employee response. Your language should be simple, clear, direct, and neutral.

The No. 1 need of human beings is acceptance. The biggest fear? Rejection. When you engage in active listening, you not only allow the employee to feel “heard” but also instill trust and respect. Slowing down the pace of the conversation allows you to make clear points, listen for understanding, consider the right response, and defuse any negative emotion that you hear or observe.

After the discussion, reflect on your own experiences from the conversation. Did you successfully convey the message in an empathetic, calm, and clear fashion? Did the employee leave the conversation with a clear understanding of what is expected of them? What did you learn about yourself in that exchange that you can utilize the next time you have a difficult conversation with an employee?

If you want to know more about how to go about having a difficult conversation or have other HR questions, we’d love to help! Give us a call or send an e-mail. We’re also available by chat. It’s one of the most valued benefits of SHRM membership!

SHRM’s Ask an Advisor service is a member benefit through which SHRM’s HR Knowledge Advisors share guidance, real-life personal and professional
experiences, and resources to assist members with their HR-related inquiries.

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