Holding a difficult conversation

Wasting your breath, harming a relationship, fraying your own and other people’s tempers and nerves unnecessarily … Ah, those difficult conversations that we’d all rather do without.

Unfortunately, good intentions don’t count when difficult conversations are involved. So that the discussion doesn’t start off on the wrong foot and go downhill from there, give some thought to the conversation beforehand. These four questions are especially helpful:

  1. What do I want the conversation to achieve and how do I want it to proceed?
  2. What, specifically, do I need the other person to understand and do as a result?
  3. How can I make my message palatable so the other person doesn’t tune out?
  4. How do I want the person to feel about me and my message once the conversation has ended?

When you are clear on those four questions, you can frame the discussion so that it proceeds cooperatively rather than confrontationally. Since the way you begin a conversation often determines how well people receive and accept your message, think carefully about your opening comments. You want them to guide the conversation towards the result you’re after.

Remember the WIFM factor (What’s In it For Me? factor) and include a WIFM as early as you can in the conversation, even in your opening comments. How will the other person benefit from acceding to your wishes?

Keep your words neutral, objective and positive. Those kind of words are more influential and persuasive than emotional, critical and negatively-loaded words and are much less likely to make the other person bristle. They also set a better ‘tone’ for the conversation.

One final word of advice: Without diminishing your meaning, keep your words as soft and sweet as you can in case you have to eat them!



The art of subtle coaching

Coaching is one of every leader-manager’s most important activities. You’re probably most familiar with coaching to improve already-good performance by gently tweaking someone’s behaviour to further enhance their results. My Describe–Explain–Suggest model is one way to do this, and my Flag–Example–Benefit model is another. Also useful is the Intent–Outcome model, where you help someone compare and contrast what they intended by their behaviour or actions with the actual outcome and then help them find ways to bring their intention and outcome closer together. Socratic questioning, where you help people find their own insights and solutions is another powerful coaching technique. (You can find examples of these models and techniques in Chapters 16 and 26.)

There’s another, more subtle type of coaching that I learned by reflecting on the way a former boss, Chris (let’s call him), coached me. It was my first job out of Uni, where my referent group was still that of uni students and I therefore dressed in ‘student uniform’ rather than ‘business attire’. Not a good look; enough said.

When we went to industry meetings together, Chris would introduce me like this: ‘This is Kris Cole, our safety and training officer. She’s very professional.’ That’s all, ‘She’s very professional’.

Chris was embedding a description of myself in my subconscious as being ‘very professional’. It affected my behaviour and yes, it affected the way I dressed, too. Without consciously realising it, I gradually began to grow into Chris’s description of me.

(You may be wondering why he didn’t just tell me, ‘Kris, you look like a mess; please fix up your image’. Well imagine my reaction to that: I can tell you right now I’d have crossed my arms, stamped my foot, pouted a bit and said, ‘It doesn’t matter how a person dresses; it just matters how well they do their job!’ I’d probably have tossed my hair, too. No, the direct approach would definitely not have worked. The subtle approach did.)

Chris subtly coached me in other ways, too. He’d pass on rules of thumb that I could easily follow. He’d relate illustrative personal stories or examples that gave me mental scaffolds to generalise from, to use to analyse problems or to make sense of experience. He thought out loud a lot, giving me insight into a really smart manager’s thinking processes and showing me how to consider matters from various angles before reaching a decision.

That was all incredibly valuable. But what I most treasure was the way Chris highlighted the positive, so I felt good about myself and willing and able to do my best work. I would like to think that every leader-manager makes time to regularly highlight the positive in people and give them something to grow into.

Two all-important three-letter words

There is a three-letter word that creates arguments and another that creates cooperation. The first is ‘but’ and the second is ‘and’. Who would think one small, simple word has the power to damage relationships and spoil conversations, and the other to make them more satisfying and effective?

‘That’s a good effort, but …’                                 ‘That looks fine, but …’
‘You did a good job, but …’                                  ‘I can tell you tried, but …’
‘I take your point, but …’                                       ‘We’ve received your order, but …’
‘I understand what you’re saying, but …’               ‘That’s one option, but …’

Do you see? When you hear the word ‘but’, you know bad news is coming. The ‘but’ butts away the positive information preceding it. It’s a verbal hammer that signals disagreement.

Are you thinking of substituting ‘but’ with ‘however’? Forget it. ‘However’ is just a three-syllable version of ‘but’ and sends the same signals.

Substitute ‘but’ with ‘and’.

‘That’s a good effort, and …’                                 ‘That looks fine, and …’
‘You did a good job, and …’                                  ‘I can tell you tried, and …’
‘I take your point, and …’                                       ‘We’ve received your order, and …’
‘I understand what you’re saying, and …’               ‘That’s one option, and …’

Hear the difference? ‘But’ blocks.  ‘And’ builds. With ‘and’, you’re working with people, not pushing against them. ‘And’ allows you to offer an improvement suggestion while acknowledging the good job that has been done.

‘That’s a good effort, and something else you could try is …’
‘That looks fine, and one way to enhance it might be to …’
‘You did a good job, and it would be fantastic if you could also …’
‘I can tell you tried, and you’ve made good progress. One thing for next time is …’

‘And’ also shows you’ve listened and heard.  It helps prevent arguments because it allows two points of view to stand and acknowledges and extends what the other person has said.

‘I take your point, and another thing we could consider is …’
‘We’ve received your order, and in order to process it, I just need …’
‘I understand what you’re saying, and here’s another way to look at it.’
‘That’s one option, and another might be …’


Substituting ‘but’ with ‘and’ can be a hard habit to break, at least it was for me, but it was well worth it. Communication becomes much more cooperative. It also becomes much more clear without muddying the waters with the mixed message ‘but’ sends.

One more thing: Much of the time, you can simply substitute ‘and’ for ‘but’. But (yes, here’s some slightly bad news) sometimes, you need to reconstruct the sentence and make your point differently. When that happens, the reworded statement is invariably stronger, more cooperative and more effective than the original version. And it’s definitely worth the effort when you want more agreements than arguments.

Sometimes it’s just about us

Picture this: You’re participating in a two-stage program on performance management. In Part one, you learn about and practice skills such as how to give positive feedback, how to give constructive feedback, and a step-by-step method for dealing with under-performance.

You’re all working on the performance management issues you brought with you (Chatham House Rules, of course), explaining to the others a bit about the under-performing team member, the specific performance gap(s), the background to the circumstances, what you’ve tried, what has helped and what hasn’t helped, and so on. Other participants ask questions in order to build a complete picture of the situation.

Now it’s Joe’s turn, who runs a busy retail store. ‘Well’, he says, ‘my problem is my 2IC. He always takes his morning break, no matter how busy we are. He just ups and heads for the kitchen at 10 o’clock on the dot. Sometimes it doesn’t matter, and sometimes it does. You just don’t walk out on a shop full of customers. He’s so selfish, it drives me nuts.’

‘How is the rest of his performance?’ asks one of the other participants.

‘Fantastic!’ says Joe. ‘I taught him all he knows! It’s just this morning break business that really gets up my nose. It’s just plain selfish.

‘So he’s good at his job’, summarises another participant. ‘What about things like timekeeping in general? Is he a “clock watcher”?’

‘No, he isn’t at all. In fact’, says Joe, ‘he’s always first in in the mornings, puts the coffee on, and has a quick tidy-up where it’s needed. He’s very dependable like that’.

‘And his other breaks? Lunch and so on?’ asks someone else.

‘He generally works through lunch when we’re busy and waits for a lull to eat. Same with the afternoon break — he takes it when we aren’t busy. It’s just this morning break that’s such a problem. I really need to bring it under control.’

At this point, you notice the other participants are exchanging glances. Bottom line: We’re faced with an assistant manager who seems to be perfect in every way, except that he always takes his morning break.

Part one of the program carries on, with you and the other participants developing your approach to your under-performing team member(s) and considering what you plan to say. You then role play it with another participant, get feedback from the other role player and other participants who are observing, and polish and refine your approach until you’re comfortable with it.

Joe takes his turn. Despite considerate feedback from the others, he remains adamant that he needs to deal with the assistant manager’s selfish insistence on taking his morning break at the appointed time.

At the end of Part one, you return to your various jobs around the country to put your performance management plans into action. Eight weeks later, you all reconvene for Part two. You begin by going around the table and hearing how everyone got on. When Joe’s turn comes, here’s what he says:

‘You know, it was funny. I got us a coffee and called him in. I knew exactly what I was going to say and opened my mouth to say it, just like we practiced. And then it dawned on me. It wasn’t my 2IC who was selfish — it was me who was selfish! Blessed with a great 2IC who gets in early every morning to make coffee, carries out his duties to perfection, takes all his breaks except for that morning break as and when it suits the rest of us and our customers, and I’m complaining about that one little thing!

‘So I asked him how he was going and brought the conversation around to the morning break. Turns out, he’s absolutely starving by 10 am, having got up early, got the kids dressed, fed and ready for school, rushes off to the store with nothing but a bit of toast, if that. I have to admit it — it was me who was selfish. I thanked him for his stellar work and that was the end of that.’

You and the others let out a big sigh of relief. Disaster averted.

Here’s my take on what’s going on. When, like Joe, something irritates you (but not others) to distraction and when you put a label on it (‘selfish’), it’s a sign you’re looking in your ‘psychic mirror’. Psychologists call this projection. We do it whenever we attach a characteristic to another person that really belongs to us. It might be qualities we don’t want to own up to (being selfish, or inconsiderate, or rude or whatever) and, rather than acknowledge we have this unwanted quality ourselves, it’s easier on the ego to point the finger at someone else.

Fortunately for Joe and for his 2IC, Joe realised he was looking in his psychic mirror and that he was the one being selfish in resenting his assistant manager taking his morning break, especially in light of his excellent performance in other areas. Not an easy admission to yourself or to a group of colleagues. Like they say: The truth will set you free. But first it may piss you off.

The two secrets to being assertive

Whether you’re helping someone improve their work performance, counselling an employee who smells of cigarettes or because of poor personal hygiene, or owning up to missing a deadline or making a mistake, you need to be assertive about it. It’s hard to imagine an effective leader-manager who isn’t assertive.

Yes, you need to use ‘I’ language so that your messages aren’t ‘pushy’. Yes, techniques like ‘broken record’ and ‘fogging’ are terrific when used well. But more, far more, than ‘I’ language or techniques, assertiveness is a mindset. And I think there are two secrets to an assertive mindset.

The first is the intention to make the other person feel good about themselves while still putting your own point of view across. When you do that, you make your point without making an enemy, and your message is far more likely to be heard and acted on.

The second is the intention to treat others with respect, which lies at the core of assertiveness. People bang on about their rights but we don’t often hear people talking about their responsibilities. Yes, we have a right to be treated with respect, to express our feelings and opinions and be listened to and taken seriously. Equally important, we have a responsibility to treat others and listen to their views with respect, to respect the wishes of others, to not force our ideas down someone else’s throat.

Understanding our responsibilities to others prevents us from crossing the line from assertiveness into aggression. Aggression may get us our own way in the short term, but every time we’re aggressive and pushy, rather than assertive, in order to get what we want, we do another degree of damage to the other person’s good will towards us and before you know it, your good working relationships have joined the dodo.

How to turn disappointing performance into good and even excellent performance

Last week, we looked at building already good performance into even better performance by providing regular constructive and positive information. That still leaves a few straggling poor performers, though.

These are the people who give you headaches, but not big enough headaches to show them the door. You’d probably like to shoo them out the door, but when you think about the discussions you need to hold first, the ill will and other problems that could result, and the whole rigamarole of paperwork that would ensue, it’s a lot easier to sigh, wish they’d quit (which they probably won’t) and let their poor performance slide. Meanwhile, the rest of your team becomes increasingly resentful that some people are getting away with not pulling their weight and wonder why they bother. That’s how the slippery slope of a poor performing team begins.

To avoid that and have a team where everyone pulls their weight and does a grand job, follow this guiding principle: ignored problems tend to grow worse. Corrective information is the antidote.

Here are four guiding principles to follow when providing corrective information:

  1. Remember the 80:20 rule of poor performance: 80 per cent of the time, poor performance is the result of the employee not knowing what they’re actually, specifically supposed to be doing or why it’s important; a poor job fit–putting the wrong person in the job; insufficient training or lack of confidence; or cumbersome systems, procedures, poor tools and equipment, lack of time or information to do a job properly; sometimes poor teamwork and even (gasp) poor leadership is at the heart of poor performance. Think through those possibilities or discuss them with the employee before taking further action. (The other 20 per cent is ‘Acts of God’ beyond employee’s control and personal problems.) (Check through Chapter 11 for more on this.)
  2. Deal with one issue at a time. A long chain of information about what needs to be improved and how to improve it, however well intended, is hard to take and even harder to digest. It also invites suspicion and resentment and damages working relationships. People fixate on the threat you pose, not their performance.
  3. Say what you mean but don’t be mean (as the saying goes). You can’t make people do better by making them feel bad.When you make people feel bad about their performance, the stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol can increase to such high levels that creativity, memory, planning, thinking and other higher order mental functions shut down and performance worsens–the opposite of what you want. (In fact, when research scientists what to study the highest levels of stress hormones, they give their subjects intense face-to-face criticism, causing the hormones to surge and the heart rate to spike by 30 to 40 beats per minute! Definitely not the result you’re after!)
  4. Your manner in delivering feedback is critically important. When you accompany your corrective information with positive body language signals such as nods and smiles, people feel better than when you frown and look annoyed or angry. You want poor performing employees to feel as good as possible about your information because when people feel better, they perform better; therefore, use positive and supportive body language.

Bearing those four principles in mind, here are some more specific tips.

Even corrective information given in the kindest, most helpful and positive way can still sting. So provide it in private and think through how best to phrase it beforehand. You don’t want your comments or tone of voice to be misunderstood or to crush a team member’s confidence or enthusiasm.


Keep your comments clear and objective. Describe the behaviour or unmet target that concerns you and convey your information in a positive, helpful way. Only address what people can control; that is, behaviours they can change or skills they can improve or develop. Go for the big stuff that can make a measurable difference to results that both you and others can see.

When addressing behaviours, be ultra cautious about what you call them; when you’re having trouble thinking of what to say, think about how the employee might describe the behaviour or their results. At all costs, avoid negative labels and ‘psychologising’ (guessing why someone does something).

Avoid vague statements and generalisations and be careful of confusing your opinions with facts.

Here are three ways to turn your information from a critical ‘push’ into a helpful ‘pull’:

  1. Keep your approach one of exploring, resolving and assisting, not telling or telling off.
  2. Change your ‘You’s’ into ‘I’s’ or get rid of the ‘You’s’ altogether:
    • You never ————————–> Next time, from now on, …
    • You shouldn’t … ——————-> It’s fast/easier/more accurate to …
    • You’re not doing that properly —> Let me run through how I’d like you to do
    • You don’t seem to be able to —-> I see you’re having trouble
  3. Point your comments to the future and on solutions and goals. The past is past. Keep painting the picture of the end result you’re after.


Do you give team members enough feedback?

When people join an organisation or transfer to a new team, the ‘settling in’ process includes figuring out where and how they fit in. This is called ‘calibration’. The answer is probably going to be different to a person’s place in their last team. That’s why role clarity and plenty of feedback are extremely important to helping people make smooth transitions. (Chapters 11 and 24 of the text have more information on this.)

Then there are team members who are overly confident about their abilities and knowledge. Known as ‘unskilled and unaware’, their high opinions of their abilities give them the least incentive to learn; they ‘don’t know what they don’t know’, to coin a phrase.

According to research, the least skilled and aware people are the last to work out they need some help. Without feedback and clear measuring posts to calibrate themselves against, they remain blissfully unaware of their performance weaknesses, both relative to others and in absolute terms. Without feedback and measures of success, your unskilled and unaware employees will never realise where they really fit in and what they need to learn to become contributing members of the team.

But just pointing out a person’s weaknesses isn’t’ the answer. You need to help them understand their limitations in a way that indicates your faith they can learn new skills and in a way that motivates them to learn those skills.

Continuous information about peoples’ performance is a driver of success in every enterprise and all the more important with recruits, poor performers and unrealistically and overly confident performers.

Discussion questions

How well do you provide clear success measures and feedback to your team members? What about you? Are you aware of your own weaknesses and are you taking steps to plug the gaps? If not, you might fit into the unskilled and unaware category yourself! How would you compare and contrast over-confidence with the ‘impostor syndrome’ discussed on page 144 of the text?