by Mary Cruse
Date Published August 15, 2017 - Last Updated December 6, 2017

Whether you are holding a coaching meeting, a monthly one-on-one, or a more serious “difficult conversation,” you want results and to maintain the relationship with the employee. Can both happen?  Absolutely!

As a leader, you want to show your employees you care about them and want them to be at their best. We support their success. They are our customers. It’s hard, though, to balance encouragement with the delivery of feedback that may not be received as positive. These can be uncomfortable discussions. Where do you start?  Here are the “Five Ws” to laying the foundation for a successful conversation.

Mary will explore Having Difficult Performance Conversations to Build a Strong Team at HDI 2017 Conference & Expo.


Location! Location! Location!  Find a place appropriate to the conversation. If the conversation is more casual, like a coaching meeting, consider taking a walk outside, going to lunch, or meeting in a mutually neutral location. Sometimes, you can even meet at the employee’s desk, if you feel the privacy there is good enough.  If the conversation is more serious, meeting in your office or in a conference room may be better. 

NOTE:  Remember, feedback of any improvement or corrective nature is very personal to the person receiving it. Do not give corrective feedback in the presence of others. This is demoralizing and results in a loss of trust and safety.

When in a room or office, consider seating arrangements. Are you taking a position of authority or support?  Do you need to sit behind the desk or across from the employee?  Or would your conversation work better sitting next to them? 


Have it clear in your mind what you want to accomplish in the conversation. This includes the topic or issue, your questions to get to the root cause, possible solutions for reaching a successful resolution,  and so on.


Carefully consider the person with whom you are meeting and the message. What is their behavior style?  How will they react to the message at hand?  You want to maintain, or even improve, your relationship with them. This will result in some planning for how you are going to present the information. You will want to discuss the situation in such a way as to preserve their dignity. Remember, the discussion is about the behavior, not the person. 


Why are you even taking the time to have this conversation?  Because you care about this person and the rest of the team and the customers and…. When people know that you care about them, they are more willing to open up, talk about the true nature of the issue, and be open to ideas to solve the problem.


Timing can make or break your meeting. Make sure both of you have enough time to discuss the topic and there are no distractions that can impose limitations on your discussion. It’s not Monday when the team is extra busy and you’re feeling pressured by having someone off the phones. It’s not too close to the employee’s end-of-shift, which could limit your discussion time because they need to leave for a personal commitment.

Here’s an example of how to use timing to your benefit. You have a particularly sensitive, maybe volatile topic to discuss. You expect it could take 30–45 minutes to discuss. Schedule the meeting within 90 minutes of the employee’s end-of-shift. After you have the conversation, if the employee appears to be upset by the conversation or there are decisions the employee wants to consider, give them the rest of the day with pay. It’s only 45–60 minutes and the employee will appreciate the “gracious exit” where they can just take some time out of the office to review things. Then schedule some time at the very beginning of their shift in the morning to reconvene and determine next steps.

As a leader, you want to show your employees you care about them and want them to be at their best.
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Final Tips

Planning is now complete. The meeting is set up. You know what you want to discuss and how. You know where you’re going to meet. And, you know what you hope to accomplish. Here are just a few more tips to help create the best possible situation.

  • Turn off the outside world. Lock your computer screen so you can’t see your email. Turn your cell phone face down on the desk and turn off the ringer. Put your back to your desk phone. Make sure your employee knows you are focused on them. Nothing says, “You’re #2” more than changing your attention to one of your corporate leashes (that’s what my husband calls them!) in the middle of your conversation.
  • Use your listening skills. Use those great listening skills you learned in customer service training. Listen carefully and intently to what your employee is telling you. Take notes about the key words and phrases they are using rather than working on your response in your head. When they pause in conversation, you can step in to summarize what you heard and then you can start to respond.
    Avoid interrupting as much as you possibly can!  Again, taking notes will absolutely help you in this way. When that thought is just pushing to be spoken, write it down!  That way the employee feels respected and heard!
  • Choose your words carefully. Choose your words in a way to continue the safe environment discussed in the book, Crucial Conversations. Propose ideas in the form of a question when discussing options for going forward. “What do you think you can do?”  “Do you think you can…?”  “What do you think would help you to do…?”  “How would that work for you?” This positions the conversation as more of a discussion than you directing the employee to do something. They will also open up to talk about what they really see themselves being successful accomplishing.
  • Use silence as your ally. When you’ve asked a question or put something out into the conversation, wait. And keep waiting for a response until you get one. Silence is very hard to sit through. That’s why we coach our employees to fill that silence on phone calls. Don’t turn it into “a game of chicken,” but don’t be impatient for a response either. The employee will feel the pressure of the silence and respond. Conversely, if there are too many silences or if you are doing all the talking, you no longer have a conversation. And that is a great indication that the safe environment is gone. Time to take a step back and recover.

Hooray!  The meeting is over!  You’ve discussed the issue and reached a plan on how to move forward. After reviewing the details of the plan, commit to the employee that you will send an email with the details within two business days for their review. You will be asking them to confirm back to you that this is what you agreed to and they are ready to move forward. This email not only presents the employee with that plan, but acts as your documentation of the discussion results.

You’ll find these conversations get easier with experience and, as you find more and more of them successful, they will no longer fall in the category of “difficult.” 

Passionate about customer service, Mary Cruse has 30 years of experience leading teams for Fortune 500 companies in the airline, healthcare, and finance industries. She has extensive experience in leading both technical and nontechnical customer service centers, focusing on contact center design, technology, customer service delivery, and team building. Mary is Director – IT Customer Service for First American Corporation.  As a volunteer, she currently serves as the chair of the Help Desk Chapters, Inc. board and on the Call Center Industry Advisory Council.

Tag(s): supportworld, workforce enablement, performance management, people, leadership


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