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In Focus: How to have the conversations no manager wants to have.

Our In Focus series of articles originally appeared in The Leadership Bulletin, a free weekly bulletin for leaders and managers. You can subscribe here.

This week, I’m looking at one of the things nobody likes to do: have a difficult conversation. But like it or not, they are a fact of life for leaders and managers. So what’s the best way to go about it? Here's five tips for having better difficult conversations:

1. Speak sooner rather than later.

As a rule, the bigger the problem the more difficult the conversation. Seize the early moments to raise issues - like underperformance - before they get out of hand. Even if it doesn’t completely solve things, it will prepare them for conversations to come.

2. Plan.

Both parties can get flustered in a difficult conversation and things could get missed. So plan what you’re going to say, with notes if necessary. This helps make sure you have explained the issue thoroughly from your point of view.

3. Get down to it.

We often like to give feedback as a “sandwich” - positive, constructive, positive. This has its place, but in serious and difficult conversations it can be misleading for the employee. Often, the best thing to do is just set out your issues clearly.

4. Allow feedback.

It’s likely the employee is going to reply and share their perspective. That’s fine - allow it and take the time to make sure you fully understand their view before responding. Make sure you listen and respond in a way that is fair and objective.

5. Look to the future.

Except for in the worst case scenarios (e.g. gross misconduct) negative feedback isn't the end of the story. After dealing with the problems, pivot to focus on the future, such as how to avoid the difficult situation arising again and any support you can offer.

Not only will this keep things moving forward, it’s more productive than dwelling on the past and the right thing to do. Difficult conversations often need to happen, but our focus should usually be on addressing the cause and improving for the future.

These aren’t the only ways to handle difficult conversations and different situations will often require their own approach. But the above five tips will help you to make sure difficult conversations are conducted professionally.