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Sometimes, feedback and ongoing coaching are more than just sparring on specific tasks, activity adjustments, and general performance discussions. Sometimes, the topics are heavier, and the challenges are more significant.

We have yet to meet anyone who enjoys conducting a difficult conversation. But mastering this discipline is part of the craft of leadership, and with a bit of structure, you can perform difficult conversations professionally.

The difficult conversation – just because it is called “a difficult conversation” means it is challenging to conduct. The uncertainty lies within us and often revolves around our fear of how the recipient will react.

We are reluctant to hurt another person or risk having our intentions misunderstood. We may fear that our feedback may seem aggressive, and the other party might feel we are interfering with something personal. It may also be that we think it will pass, and our basis for assessment is inadequate – and one would not want to be unfair.

Whatever our reason for hesitating, consider this – what are the consequences if you do nothing? The result of not having the conversation is often worse or more significant than taking action. If no action is taken, the gap between the expected and the current performance will grow larger and larger. Over time, it will affect both the individual, the surroundings, and the quality of the work performed.

The crucial thing is that you, as a leader, take responsibility and react. The motivation to have the difficult conversation should lie in the fact that the change should lead to achieving a positive change that can be observed over time.

When presenting a difficult message, preparation is crucial for a good result. With practice, we can make the task easier for ourselves and thus create the conditions for the conversation to proceed appropriately and be perceived as professional. We need to prepare both practically for the discussion and mentally for the entire process, mainly how we handle a possible reaction from the employee.

Younger colleague getting feedback from a manager
Blogpost om IT-Sikkerhed. Kolleger arbejder med IT-sikkerhed på computer.

Practical preparation

The practical part of the conversation is divided into three phases:


DURING the conversation

How will I proceed?

BEFORE the conversation

What is the goal? Why is it important?

AFTER the conversation

How to ensure that the goal is achieved?

Prepare by collecting facts/documentation that support the reason for the conversation. Define what the goal of the discussion is and what you want in the future. Feel free to formulate questions relevant to the case.

When the preparation is in place, the structure during the conversation helps ensure that you cover all aspects of the subject matter.

During the conversation, you must immediately set the frame and the reason for the meeting. Listen and be curious about the employee’s explanation for the changes you are experiencing. Ask clarifying questions and involve employees in what can contribute to creating a positive difference. Present your goals and expectations and enter into an explicit written agreement, such as an action plan describing who does what and when.

To ensure that the recipients understand the content and character of the message, the way you communicate during the conversation is crucial:

  • The message should be clear
  • Make it as specific as possible and support it with concrete examples 
  • Be honest and express your feelings
  • Keep it short, but elaborate if necessary
  • Say it nicely, with respect for the person

For the conversation to have the necessary effect, follow-up on the agreements made is crucial for there to be a change. Follow up on deals and be consistent with the agreed terms.

Also, spend some time evaluating your performance. What went well? What could be done differently next time? It will help you in future conversations.

Mental preparation

As mentioned earlier, the mental part of your preparation is just as important as the practical preparation. Even though we think we have prepared thoroughly, it can be challenging to predict 100% how the recipient will react to our message. The reaction can range from anger and denial to relief, tears, and acknowledgement of needing help. The crucial aspect of the outcome is how you handle the response.

You must listen to and acknowledge the counterpart’s perception and reaction and then follow the three steps to maintain focus:

  • THE PRESENT – facts related to the case
  • THE FUTURE – what is the goal
  • THE VALUE – the significance of the desired change

By maintaining your focus on the case, the chance of avoiding becoming emotionally involved is significantly higher. 

Read more on Leadership and Feedback.