If you don't have anything nice to say, don't say anything at all


As children, we were encouraged to “be nice” and play well with others. We were told, “if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.” It’s no wonder that when, as adults, we are called upon to say what is difficult, many of us balk, especially at work, where we are expected to be impeccably civilized and professional. Yet managers every day are required to confront performance problems, give critical feedback, and let people go – and it doesn’t feel “nice.” But not only are these conversations a fact of life, in order to create a truly prosperous organization we need to become adept at having them. Failing to address people problems can damage performance, morale, and your reputation. Happily, it turns out that handling them well is imminently civilized and much “nicer” in the long-term than avoiding them.

Being effective at handling difficult conversations does demand some thoughtfulness. The first order of business is to take a step back and look at yourself.

  • How have you been handling this situation so far, and what have the consequences been of that approach? For various reasons – inborn style preferences, learned patterns of behavior – we all have a tendency to approach perceived interpersonal conflict in certain ways. Some people tend to avoid difficult conversations, others rush headlong into them and end up behaving like a bull  in a china shop. You need to be honest with yourself about what your MO is and why it isn’t working. Putting off difficult conversations allows undesirable behavior to continue, which reinforces mediocrity both in the individual and others who are observing your non-action, while  aggressive confrontation will damage relationships and undermine performance.
  • How do you feel, and what thoughts are driving how you feel about it? Common emotions include anger at the person for letting you down, guilt at delivering an unpleasant consequence, and fear about an undesirable outcome. While they may be understandable, acting under the steam of these emotions is not likely to yield a positive interaction or outcome. Understanding what drives those feelings is what will allow you to behave from a vantage point beyond them. Anger is usually rooted in taking something personally (and it almost assuredly isn’t personal); guilt stems from feeling responsible (and deemphasizing the other person’s responsibility); and fear over unpleasant consequences encourages us to forget the desirable outcomes of achieving your goal.
  • What do you want to achieve? We are easily distracted by our all-too-human desires. Maybe you just want to vent, or maybe a part of you wants to punish the person for some past transgression. Maybe you want to be seen as a “good guy” or, conversely, strengthen your position as “boss.” Being aware of these desires helps us subordinate them to our broader goals of improving performance and strengthening relationships. Be specific about what it is that you want to see happen going forward.

Once you have gained some insights into your attitudes about the situation, only then should you plan your approach.

  • Get clarity on their position. What do you think they think and feel about the situation? Are they aware of the problem? Are they embarrassed, pointing fingers, or eager to talk? What caused the problem from their perspective, and what do you think they think a solution would look like?
  • Don’t prepare for a fight or a debate. Pre-think your own attitudes and stumbling blocks and try to gain insight into others’, but go into the conversation with a black-and-white plan of attack. Stay open to alternative ideas and perspectives versus defending your view. Be respectful – and always be the calm one, even if the other person seems intent on fighting.
  • Remember that things are rarely simple. Check your assumptions. What aren’t you seeing? What do you think you understand but might be wrong about? Go into the exchange assuming you don’t know everything. The only thing you should assume is good intentions.

For countless reasons, difficult conversations between manager and employee are often fraught with feelings (we are human, after all). The best piece of advice I have heard is to try to treat the issue simply like a problem to be solved together. This helps you both de-personalize the situation and approach the conversation from a higher vantage point, away from the muck and mire of complicated emotions, and produce a solution that is collaborative. As we have discussed before (here and here), effective leaders and managers need to take a big-picture, long-term view in order to be effective. Remember that while these conversations may sting in the short term, having them promptly and properly does everyone a favor in the long term, especially the person who is underperforming.

“People almost never change without first feeling understood.”   —Douglas StoneDifficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most