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A clear plan of how you want the difficult staff situations to go will allow for better results.


When a difficult issue arises with a staff member, it is easy to lose sight of what’s going on. We may become frustrated or irritated and form judgements about them before we have sat down to talk with them. It may seem easier to avoid the issue, hoping it will work itself out and protect ourselves from difficult staff conversations. However, complex behaviour and attitudes within your team need to be addressed as soon as possible. If not, it can become toxic. As a result, the productivity, results, and wellbeing of the rest of your team can suffer.

But often, tricky conversations can be emotionally charged and can quickly escalate out of control. An attacking approach will get an equally defensive and often angry reaction. So what can you do to keep your own cool and that of your staff member? Answer: Have a clear plan of how you want the conversation to go and what you want as a result. Then recognise the different stages that the discussion will likely follow and arm yourself with the following tips and techniques.

  1. Step into the conversation

Any conversation with a challenging staff member needs to outline the purpose, so there is no guesswork as to what the conversation is about. A purpose statement may look something like this:

‘What I’m seeing is that your recent behaviour has a negative impact on results and the rest of the team. What I’d like to do is to work with you to sort this out. I’d like to start by asking a few questions so I can better understand your perspective. Is that okay with you?’

By framing the difficult staff conversations in this way, there is no guesswork involved in the discussion. Further, it is suggested that ideally, you would like to work with them on this to understand their point of view and collectively work towards a solution. This should feel like less of an attack on them, reducing the likelihood of them becoming defensive and angry.

  1. Ask the right questions.

First and foremost, you need to understand what is behind the problematic behaviour, including attempting to see things from the staff members point of view. A good way to do this once you’ve framed the conversation is by asking open-ended questions that promote discussion:

Can you please give me an insight into what’s going on?

Talk me through what’s happening?

Tell me how it got to this point? / How has it been brought to this?

Try to avoid butting in or correcting them at this point. This is their turn to talk and yours to listen.

  1. Listen, as in really listen!

After asking the right questions, the important thing is to listen. What is the real reason behind their behaviour? You may hear about a real problem that you can solve that’s not the employee’s fault, or there may be legitimate issues they have that need to be addressed. Paraphrasing is really good to do to show you have correctly heard someone.

For example: So what you’re telling me is that……and repeat what they have just told you. Feeling genuinely heard in this way can sometimes change a person’s demeanour instantly. This can help dampen any anger they may be feeling and keep the conversation calm. You may disagree with what they have said, but if that is the case, keep your feedback clear, simple, and based on facts and what you have seen and heard.

  1. Empathise

Once you have listened to your staff member and properly heard the response, the next step is to acknowledge what they have said by seeing things from their perspective. Empathy is one of the most powerful tools you can use to reduce a person’s emotional response and bring them back to logic. A simple acknowledgement of what they have said and how they must be feeling makes them truly feel listened to. An example might look like this: ‘Thank you for telling me, that sounds like you’ve had a lot to deal with, that would be very stressful for you.’ The more you can use these techniques to stop your staff members from getting angry, the less likely you will get angry in response.

  1. Solution Mode

Now you may be in a position to work towards solution mode. You could use an action statement like ‘Let’s move forward and get this sorted to avoid further upset and disruption.’

Research shows that a person is much more likely to stick to a plan or an action if they believe they have thought it up themselves. You will need to guide them with specifics of what is expected of them but as much as possible, let them take ownership and come up with a plan of action.

Finally, ensure you are clear about follow up actions and consequences if they don’t turn their behaviour around. But again, this can be framed positively to avoid negative language that is more likely to result in an angry response. Instead of saying if you don’t do x,y and z, then the consequences will be disciplinary action. Turn it around to say, ‘I believe you can turn this around. By sticking to the plan, we have outlined, you can avoid any further disciplinary actions.’

There is always a risk when approaching difficult staff conversations that anger can easily take hold and escalate out of control. The trick is to keep calm and plan the conversation and the outcome you want. By asking the right questions, listening effectively, showing empathy and using positive language, you have less chance of anger, which means you have more chance of remaining in control and getting the best outcome.


Tough Conversations in the Workplace is one of the eMatrix Leadership Series modules. Contact us for more details.