Handling a Difficult Conversation

By Sue Winkler, Director, EngageHR
Published March 13, 2018

difficult conversations with employeesOver the past few weeks, I partnered with several Management Association members to assist with difficult conversations with employees. In fact, these were all termination conversations that were the result of performance issues, restructuring, budget cuts, and just “not being a good fit.” When we think about difficult conversations, these are certainly at the top of the list.

There is one thing I have learned in my 30 years of human resources experience that I always share when coaching a manager through a tough conversation: Take time to prepare.

Preparing is not just about making sure you have the proper documentation in place. It’s also about preparing for the conversation. Remind yourself of the leader you want to be. For me, it’s about showing respect and dignity to the other person, being compassionate, being authentic, and being clear about what’s happening. What does that look like for you? Taking time to think about how you want to be perceived, and reminding yourself of those traits, will help you achieve the right mindset for the conversation.

Sara Grady, author and founder of the Bevens Institute, refers to this state of mind as our higher consciousness. It’s where our own greatness can be found. It’s the place where we can truly serve others and operate without defensiveness. It’s the place where constructive outcomes can happen. All we can control in the conversation is ourselves, and investing time to prepare makes a difference.

The managers whom I sat beside during these conversations wrote out a script. They went over the script several times to be sure it sounded the way they intended. The script also provided them with the support they needed to start the conversation and to respond to challenges or questions from the employee. It gave them confidence and kept them from over explaining, which can lead to confusion and feeling out of control. Even though this was very difficult for these managers, they all handled the conversation with professionalism and compassion – because they were prepared.

Always remember that it is okay to let silence happen. Do not give in to the uncomfortableness that silence can bring by talking too much or over explaining. Those silent moments are valuable. Use them to pause. To breathe. To think about what you want to say next. To let the other person start to process what they are hearing. To let them ask questions.

These conversations should not be easy.  But preparing ahead of time for what you want to say and how you want to be perceived will give you the confidence you need to control your side of the conversation and be the leader you want to be. 

If you are looking for more information and best practices on how to handle these types of conversations, our HR Hotline staff is always available to coach you through any employee situation. Call us at 800-448-4584 or email hotline@hrsource.org.   


employee benefits

Share this page: