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First Time Manager’s Guide to Difficult Conversations

Posted by Glassdoor Team

Career Advice Experts

Last Updated 4 May 2020
|3 min read

No one likes difficult conversations. But as a first-time manager, you might be even more weary of having them. As career consultant Joseph Liu explains, first-time managers tend to be disproportionately focused on getting along well with their direct reports—especially those who may have once been lateral peers. And because of that, “they may shy away from having tough conversations because they’re concerned about the negative impact on the relationship,” he says.

Other first-time managers might struggle to take on the role of a superior, and are uncomfortable sharing negative feedback—and others still may be unsure of how to give negative feedback. 

Whatever the issue, having difficult conversations doesn’t have to be a bad experience. With this guide, you can have tough talks without significant stress and worry, these career experts say. 

1. Don’t let too much time pass. 

When you know you need to have a difficult conversation, don’t let things fester, warns Tracy Sinclair, an executive and leadership coach. “The saying ‘nip it in the bud’ is a useful analogy,” she says. “When we leave things that are an issue, we often find the difficulty just increases, and it feels harder and harder to address. Then, when we do finally have the conversation, our ability to stay calm and objective is hindered.” So, in order to keep the conversation constructive, rather than emotionally-driven, she says it’s best to address issues as soon as they become apparent.

2. Have a framework in mind. 

Liu recommends adopting a “mental framework” that you can use for any difficult conversation, a formula, if you will, that will help you stay both on topic and stress-free. “For example, you could structure your message around: their action, the impact, and the desired behaviour change,” he says. “Having a verbal construct to follow can help remove the guesswork when delivering tough feedback and allow you to focus on what you want to say instead of how to say it.” 

3. Gather the facts. 

It’s important to gather the facts so that you have clarity—and loads of information—going into any conversation, Sinclair says. “This enables you to stay objective and think clearly about the situation and how you want to approach it,” she says. Don’t launch a talk until you’re prepared. 

4. Focus on actions, not intentions. 

To keep the conversation from getting too tough, Liu suggests keeping your comments to only observable actions, rather than speculation about an employee’s intentions. “Focusing on their intentions will inevitably result in pushback—rarely do people intend to behave in ineffective ways,” Liu says. “You don’t want to start the conversation with them on the defensive.”

5. Find the right moment. 

Not every time is the right time for a tough talk. So, prior to diving into a difficult conversation, Liu recommends asking your employee if he or she would be open to a discussion at that specific time. “You are not asking permission to have the conversation,” he says, “but demonstrating an awareness that there may be better moments to have difficult conversations than others. The last thing you want to do is attempt to have a tough conversation with someone in the middle of putting out a fire or managing another major stressor in that moment. Finding the right moment to have a difficult conversation is half the battle so you can both be fully present during the talk.”

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