HOW TO: Start a Tough Conversation at Work

by Sharlyn Lauby on January 22, 2012

One of the questions I’m often asked is how to start a difficult or challenging conversation.  It might be a sensitive topic, performance matter or personal issue.  In my experience, managers often want to either:

  1. Tap dance around the topic with “small talk” – conversation about football, movies, pets, etc. and then launch into the coaching discussion.  This can send mixed messages to employees about why they are there.  It’s better to keep the message on point.  Or…
  2. Get straight to the point.  Do not pass go and do not collect $200.  This can come across as a bit harsh.  It might send the message that the manager is uncomfortable and wants to get the discussion over as soon as possible.

Finding the right words can be a challenge.  Which is why I was happy when McGraw Hill sent me a copy of the book “Perfect Phrases for Icebreakers” by Meryl Runion and Diane Windingland.  The book shares literally hundreds of ways communication, conversation, phrases, business, manager, leaderto start meetings, conversations, and discussions.  They are organized by who you are conversing with, what the conversation is about, where you are having the discussion and what you’re trying to accomplish.

Now some of you might be saying…really?!  A book of phrases?!  Is this necessary?!  And until I read the book, I might have agreed with you.  But while I was reading the book, I found myself thinking of the manager trying to start a coaching conversation with one of their employees and struggling for the right words to say.

I also found myself thinking of the new consultant trying to strike up conversations with potential clients at networking meetings.  Or the job seeker attempting to engage in conversation with a recruiter.  I thought of the trainers and facilitators looking for great questions to involve participants during sessions.  And the business pro who hates attending conferences alone and would love to find a comfortable way to chat with another attendee.

If you know someone who is looking for suggestions in the best way to start a conversation, this book could be valuable.  Using my example of the manager trying to start a tough conversation, the book offers a few tips:

  • I’d like to ask your permission to raise a sensitive subject.
  • I have some things to say that I imagine will be hard to hear.  I think it’s important you know, and that’s why I want to have this conversation.
  • I wish I had better news to share.  I’ll tell you straight out, answer your questions, and explore next steps with you.

Each of us has moments when we’re looking for a better way to say something.  I found Perfect Phrases for Icebreakers to offer some good suggestions and raise excellent points about the importance of starting conversations off properly.

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Kayathri January 23, 2012 at 12:55 pm

Worth buying. Thanks for sharing Sharlyn. Planning to get one for myself. Currently reading carrots and stick once finish shall continue with this one. I had fast flip through Amzon web, and wow its awesome.
Luv,
Kaya

Sharlyn Lauby January 23, 2012 at 2:24 pm

Thanks for the comment Kaya. Enjoy the book!

Jeff Jackson January 26, 2012 at 9:20 am

Thanks for the review, Sharlyn! Even if you know how to conduct a tough conversation, getting started is so often the hardest step. I’m definitely getting this one!
Jeff Jackson recently posted..In a crisis, should the skipper take the helm?

Sharlyn Lauby January 27, 2012 at 7:47 am

Enjoy the book Jeff!

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