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How to address difficult conversations with employees?

Addressing difficult conversations with employees is one of the worst tasks at a job. For many directors, managers and team leaders talking about issues such as tardiness, poor performance or conflicts between colleagues is a bitter pill to swallow that they tend to postpone or avoid. In this post we share 7 tips that will help you to better manage these complicated conversations with your employees.

This post is also available in Spanish.

Speaking with employees is key to avoiding conflicts

Managing difficult conversations with employees is an inevitable part of human resources management in any company. Common examples of issues at work are discussions on poor employee performance, failure to meet working hours (ES), or conflicts between colleagues. It is a reality that these situations create tension and stress for all employees. And usually the necessary conversations to lessen tensions and resolve issues are delayed. In many cases, it’s because we don’t know how to begin the conversation, or we don’t know how to choose the most appropriate words to create an open dialogue. But failing to address difficult conversations with employees at the right moment is not recommended at all, because a small issue can become a difficult problem to resolve, and can end up affecting the productivity of those involved and creating a negative working environment.

When there is a problem in an organization or team,

it’s usually due to lack of communication.

The 6 stages of a conversation

In his Spanish book How do I say it? The art of difficult conversations. Impulsing effective change through dialogue” (Barcelona, Libros de cabecera, 2016), Enrique Sacanell proposes the CEMA model to tackle difficult conversations. CEMA is the Spanish acronym for Build (Construir), Explore (Explorar), Show (Mostrar) and Act (Actuar). This model divides all dialogue into 6 stages, and highlights that listening is the attitude that must be present throughout the entire process.


  1. “Pre-conversation”

    Preparation phase. The more your prepare the conversation, the greater the chance that it will be successful. Although there are no two conversations the same, and you should always leave room for improvisation.
  2. “Build” – Construir

    The beginning is very important. The place where we approach that difficult conversation and our attitude are very important to build a trustworthy environment that encourages dialogue.
  3. “Explore” – Explorar

    Before showing our opinion and making suggestions, it’s essential to leave space for the other to express his/her vision.
  4. “Show” – Mostrar

    This is the moment to show our vision as clearly and accurately as possible.
  5. “Act” – Actuar

Difficult conversations are successful when an agreement and a compromise are                        achieved.      6. Post-conversation” Reviewing the agreement.
>> Related post: What is the employee experience?

7 tips to address difficult conversations with employees

Any person that is responsible for a team needs to have conversation techniques to handle any conflicting topic. These 7 tips are very useful to ensure that difficult conversations won’t be traumatic for anyone:

1. Prepare the meeting

Whether it’s talking directly with an employee or being a mediator in a conflict, it’s important to decide in advance what the purpose of the conversation is .

For that, it’s important to have all of the necessary information before beginning to talk. The goal is to base your message on data or specific facts, not on assumptions.

To do this, you have to ask and ask questions. An active listener can obtain statements from the participant: What goals or responsibilities are the employee not complying with? In a conflict between colleagues, what is the other side of the story?

Before beginning the conversation, it’s important to know if a personal issue might be the source of the problem.

Every conversation is an unrepeatable and unpredictable universe. Navigating each one of those is an art.”

Enrique Sacanell

2. Free yourself from prejudices

In many situations we probably have preconceived ideas about what might have happened, created by rumors that circulate in the office or due to our greater or lesser affinity for the employee we have to talk with..  These previous ideas predispose us to adopt a certain attitude, and to make value judgements that can ruin the subsequent conversation. Everyone should have the opportunity to express his/her point of view, and let it be heard openly without predefined filters. Your reaction and response to what the employee has to say should be as thoughtful and fair as possible. difficult-conversations-with-employees.jpeg

3. Watch your attitude and language

How can you begin a conversation? “I would like to talk about … with you, but first I would like to know what is your point of view with respect to …” would be a good example of how to start a dialogue. Nobody likes hearing bad news, let alone about yourself. The form – verbal and nonverbal communication – matters a lot at the moment of beginning a complicated conversation. However, it’s important to be clear and not leave margin for interpretation. If you start a conversation abruptly, it’s likely that the other person will feel attacked and adopt a defensive attitude. If you want the employee to be receptive, open to constructive criticism and to leave the meeting predisposed to improve, you should take care of these details.

4. Constructive criticism

Whatever the reason for the meeting, it’s important that your criticism is always constructive. That means it should be based on an objective observation and accompanied with a solution to the problem. Constructive criticism does not generalize, it’s specific and projected in the future. For example, helping the employee to find out why he isn’t meeting his goals, and suggest what he could do to change that. Remember that many employees hope for their boss to also be a coach that guides them, and helps them reach their goals and progress in their profession.
>> Related post: Gamification: how to learn through games in companies 5. Control your emotions A relaxed conversation usually becomes an argument when the emotional part takes over and blocks our rational side. The same mechanism is activated when we are having a difficult conversation: when it begins to get out of control, our emotions step in and we raise our voices. Our emotional side interprets that the rational side is not capable of controlling the situation, and has to choose between two solutions: flee or attack. When this happens, you should question the other party. You will be forcing him/her to think of a response. In this way, the rational side will take over the emotional (in most cases).
Robert Plutchik, former professor at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, created an Emotional Wheel to show that emotions follow a path. What begins with an annoyance can become anger and, in extreme cases, escalate into hate.


6. Choose a neutral environment

To create a relaxed environment that inspires confidence in the employee, it’s best to find a neutral place. Your office may be a place that marks hierarchies by default, and it’s likely that there, the person you have to speak with will feel uncomfortable.  A meeting room or having a coffee in the company’s lounge area are better options. If your companion feels close to you, and can speak in confidence, he will open himself up more and you can better detect the problem he is facing.

7. End the conversation by setting goals

Ending the conversation by agreeing on clear goals with the employee is as important as knowing what you want to achieve at the beginning of the talk. If there aren’t concrete goals, it’s very easy that everything you’ve spoken of is quickly forgotten, without a major impact on results. For this reason, it’s important to clearly define what goals your employee commits to, and how far you commit to helping him achieving them. If it’s necessary, agree on a schedule that reflects the deadlines to reach the goals. Set up follow-up meetings to to know if he is following the plan or not and evaluate the commitments.


In sum, our greatest advice to handling difficult conversations with employees would be empathetic listening and objectivity when looking for solutions to a conflict. The main goal of a good manager should be creating a cordial environment where understanding prevails. For that, it’s a priority to face problems when they are identified and to resolve these situations as best and soon as possible. On the bright side, a difficult conversation with an employee can be an excellent mechanism to strengthen relationships within the team. We hope that our recommendations will help you to better resolve those common conflicts at work. Where there are two people there are differences, but we should never forget that we all have things in common. We must only find them. 🙂       This post is also available in Spanish.