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How to Conduct Sensitive Conversations with Tact

You’ve been dreading it, but you can’t put things off any longer. It’s time to have that conversation that’s so sensitive you don’t really know how to approach it.

Sensitive conversations come up fairly often in the workplace, and they often focus on employee performance or behavior. They can be between a manager and employee or peers, and it’s rare that anyone looks forward to having them.

Because people tend to avoid them, these conversations don’t always go well. Knowing how to have sensitive conversations — how to start them, get through them and finish them — helps make the workplace function more smoothly, and to shut down problems before they get out of hand. Here are some tips.

Stick to a Script

When faced with sensitive conversations, I used to try to build rapport with the person before jumping in. I’d ask them how they were doing, how the family was and so on — but when it was time to talk about the real issue, all the pleasant chit-chat made it even harder to change the topic. My good intentions sabotaged the process.

I developed a go-to opening for sensitive conversations, and it’s one sentence: “I have something difficult to talk about with you.” Once I’ve said that to someone else, there’s no going back. If you’re having trouble getting sensitive conversations started, rethinking how you approach them can help.

Depersonalize the Issue When Possible

Sensitive conversations are hard because people often feel attacked or vulnerable when their performance or behavior is brought up. It’s hard not to take feedback personally, even when it’s not meant to be a statement on personal values or worth, but an accusatory sentence like “You’ve turned these weekly reports in late for the past month” can put people on the defensive instantly, even if it’s true.

Depersonalizing the issue can make it easier to talk about someone’s actions, and for them to hear what you have to say. “These weekly reports have been late” opens up the conversation for more give-and-take, instead of an accusation that requires a defense. You still need to be specific about the issue, but opening with a depersonalized statement can make it easier.

Make a Real Effort to Listen

A lot of sensitive conversations come up because people see the same thing in different ways. Especially in peer-to-peer discussions, conflict can arise simply because two people have different perspectives and aren’t considering the other person’s experience. It’s common to think “I can’t believe we have to even have this conversation” when preparing for these discussions, but that attitude can block understanding.

Listen carefully to the other person as they talk about their perspective and experience, and be open to how it might differ from yours. Ask questions that can help illustrate and uncover the issue and be willing to hear ideas for improvement.

Initiate More Positive Conversations

Connecting with direct reports and peers when things aren’t fraught can build up your relationships for when concerns arise. If they only see you coming when you have feedback about things that aren’t going well, your ongoing relationship is going to get progressively worse.

Make a point of giving positive feedback when appropriate so people know the sensitive conversations are just as valid. In addition, showing appreciation for the things they do right helps you get better at giving feedback of all kinds.

Be a Role Model for Receiving Feedback

How do you react when people have sensitive discussions with you? Being able to take constructive feedback in a useful and positive way can go a long way in showing others how sensitive discussions don’t have to feel like the end of the world.

Ask your peers and direct reports for their expectations of you. You may find that some of your actions — such as giving feedback the week after a project is finished instead of the day it’s turned in — is something others wish would change, but they haven’t thought to speak up about it. Be receptive to their feedback, and be an example to them about how you want your feedback acted on.

Do your company’s managers need to brush up on their communication skills? Contact us to learn about our leadership development and coaching offerings.

Success Labs is a leadership development and management consulting firm in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. For more than 25 years, our expert team of consultants has worked with hundreds of companies to explore their business potential and improve their company and cultural performance. Contact us to get proactive about your people strategy.

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