How to have tough conversations without being a bully or a pushover

From dealing with an employee’s poor performance to diffusing a tense situation, HR is usually called in when the stakes are high. As such, it’s important that HR leaders not only feel confident engaging in crucial conversations, but also recognize them as an opportunity to positively influence their organization.

So how can HR leaders harness the power of tough conversations?

Recognize when it’s time

To start, you need to recognize the signs that it is time for a crucial conversation. Christy Tonge, an executive coach and organizational consultant who works with leaders across industries, shares that there are three common indicators.

You replay the incident. The first is finding yourself replaying a situation long after the incident occurred. Perhaps you had a meeting with a colleague that left you feeling dissatisfied with the outcome or you were unable to make your point. If you keep revisiting the situation and asking yourself how it could have happened differently, that’s usually a sign.

You see a conversation going off track. The second is observing a conversation going off track. “You’re in a meeting and you can see that [the team] keeps circling an issue without any decisions being made,” says Christy. Or perhaps deadlines and objectives are being missed, yet no one is addressing the problem.

There’s an elephant in the room. The third indicator is noticing an “elephant in the room.” For instance, a department-wide meeting becomes tense when the department head wants to discuss a restructure and no one is being honest about how they feel---despite openly expressing frustrations while hanging out in the breakroom. When it comes to knowing if “the elephant” is there, trust your gut.  

Create a safe space through mutual respect and shared purpose

Once you know that a tough conversation is needed, the next step is creating a safe space to have one.

During hard conversations, particularly ones that involve giving or receiving critical feedback, people often go into “fight or flight” mode. This can look like an individual becoming overly aggressive and defensive. Or conversely, one might be passive and disengaged.

These are natural responses, but ones that makes having high-stakes dialogues unproductive.

“People see this impossible dilemma of either ‘I can be honest and criticize OR I can be kind and withhold,’” says Christy. However, this is what the bestselling book Crucial Conversations describes as the “sucker’s choice.”

There is a third option.

“It’s possible to be rigorous and challenging and kind,” Christy states. The key is to demonstrate how much you care and deal with the problem directly. To do this, it’s essential to check how you are showing up to the conversation. Are you ready to fully engage and say what’s needed in service to other person and your shared goals? Or are you trying to win an argument and just get your way? You need the right mindset to establish mutual respect and shared purpose.

When everyone is working towards a common goal and those involved feel like the other party’s intentions are aligned with their own values, it makes it much easier to be honest, open, and receptive.

Seize the opportunity to make an impact

“The HR leaders who are most respected, who have a seat at the table with the strategic leaders of the business are the ones who initiate crucial conversations,” Christy shares. These HR leaders aren’t afraid to “raise hard questions” and “have the courage to challenge their peers and senior leadership in service of the company’s goals.”

Deliberate crucial conversations not only enable HR leaders to continue to grow, but also model a best practice for the rest of the company.

For instance, mistakes will inevitably be made even with the best of intentions. If an HR leader is vulnerable enough to say “I blew it” and do the work of work that comes with participating in a tough conversation with a colleague or an entire team, the rest of the organization can learn how to do the same. That’s an incredible way to influence company culture to embrace meaningful dialogue over easy dialogue. And, it establishes the HR leader's credibility as someone who genuinely cares about the organization and its people.


Slate Advisers is a career transition services firm that takes a more innovative approach to outplacement, accelerating employee transitions and delivering measurable results. We work with companies amid team reorgs, acquisition integrations, and other employee exits. And, by supporting smoother departures, we help protect the company's employment brand and morale. Our clients range from venture-backed startups to the Fortune 1000.



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