Confronting prickly employees and underperformers rarely tops anyone’s list of favorite tasks. Nobody at the office wants to talk about difficult topics or deliver bad news. Most managers secretly wish that frustrating employees would stop making life so difficult and “get over it.” They forget that within the challenges people present, often there is a gift of insight and opportunity for even better leadership. But such gifts only emerge when genuine conversations unfold. Too often, conversations with difficult employees are short, terse, or threatening. This is often, because few people were taught how. Think how difficult holidays are with family members and how readily we press each other’s buttons. In other words, we often learned how not to communicate at home.

A recent New York Times article provided a superb template for talking to family members about politics at holiday events. Much of what the article’s author Dr. Karin Tamerious, who started a non-profit called Smart Politics, says holds true for all kinds of difficult conversations. The article provides techniques to diffuse a potentially explosive situation and redirect the conversation to shared values, mostly by using listening skills.  While not entirely applicable to certain office issues, her concepts of listening, restating what you are hearing, and asking better questions holds true in most situations. In the article, she provides some great, concrete examples.

Frankly, family dynamics are much more difficult than work-related ones. Imagine, if there’s hope for families, there’s certainly opportunity to improve how we interact with one another at work.  With work-related challenges top of mind, my clients tell me they have benefitted from my “library” of communication tools to help them succeed with difficult conversations and employees. For the purposes of this brief article, you can take away two important points (aside from the link and encouragement to read the NYT’s article).

The first summarizes what I don’t want you to miss: Avoidance is no solution. There are highly successful strategies available to you and your teams for handling difficult situations, from negotiations, conflicts, performance reviews, and all manner of feedback. We have a variety of workshops that can help you with these specific situations. One of the most popular is called Fast Feedback. It addresses ways you can provide difficult feedback so the employee hears what needs to change moving forward. The main thing is to know there are techniques that will really work. Don’t let this critical professional skill-set slide!

The second point may be different from what you might expect to hear. It is to ask yourself:  Do I make it hard for others to give me negative information?

Are you reactive, emotional, or defensive? Alternatively, do you keep your emotions in check as you listen to understand and receive all the data you can to accurately assess what’s going on with another person?

Many years ago, my younger self was quick to defend myself when I thought someone was “unfairly” giving me negative feedback. I was quick to “explain” why their points were wrong. All it takes is a few rounds of defensiveness, and others will stop telling you anything. You’ll cut yourself out of important information.

So, before you dive into the shortcomings of others on your team, first, have a heart-to-heart with yourself. Be sure you are holding yourself up to a high standard. It’s up to you to set an example. To check this out, do a reality check. Ask members on your team how well they think you receive feedback. Do it in private, of course!

Before the next tough conversation comes up, get some training and have your entire team take a workshop. It will build rapport within the team and open up pathways to improved productivity that will far exceed the investment in time and money.