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Why Difficult Conversations Take A Bad Turn… and What To Do About It

 October 3, 2019   By Aleta Norris


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Why Difficult Conversations Take A Bad Turn… and What To Do About ItI know you’ve experienced this.

You schedule time to have a difficult conversation with one of your employees, a conversation you, in fact, wish you were not having to have.

You even managed to avoid it for longer than you should have.

Eventually, though, you had to lean in.

You prepared and envisioned that it just might go well.

What is your conversation about?

It could be a performance issue! Or perhaps your employee has an attendance or timeliness-related situation.

Or maybe this employee is here every day, on time, doing his or her work but is unpleasant to work with for everyone else on the team. Ugh, the dreaded behavior challenge.

You sit down to have the conversation, ready to do your part well, but the conversation goes every way but well.

Below, I will walk you through four of the predictable, not-so-great employee reactions to your candid, not-very-comfortable conversation.

#1 Your employee points his finger at someone else.

Let’s imagine you’re talking with an employee about unreliable attendance or arrival times. You set the stage by saying something like, “Mike, over the past month, you’ve missed work three out of four Fridays, and you’ve been late for work five times.”

Predictable response:

Mikes replies by saying, “Well, what about Kate? Many days she arrives at work after I do.”

Not-so-great reaction:

The most common response by a leader is “Well, we’re not talking about Kate. We’re talking about you.”

Bad answer! That’s too parental.

A better response:

A better response is, “I understand your interest in what others are doing. I would like you to trust I’m talking with others privately, just as I’m talking with you privately. Would it be okay if we talked about what’s preventing you from getting to work?

We call this approach, “Affirm, then Redirect.”

To help you remain calm, keep in mind that many people will try to deflect the situation away from themself as a self-protection measure.

#2: Your employee becomes angry.

You talk with your employee about missing key milestones on an important project. You may say something like, “Jamy, during our last three project update meetings, you have been unprepared to share any of the milestones you’re responsible for achieving on behalf of the team.”

Predictable response:

Jamy replies in a raised voice, “You have no idea how impossible it’s been for me to get what I need from John. Every day, he has some excuse.”

Not-so-great reaction:

When an employee is angry, it is not uncommon for a leader to become angry in return or to interrupt their employee with a comment like “Calm down. I won’t talk to you if you’re acting like this.”

A better response:

The better response will be to allow your employee to blow off some steam, without interruption. Then, demonstrate to the employee that you care about their pain points. You might ask “Have you talked to John about this?” or you might say something like, “I didn’t realize you were having difficulty with John in these situations.”

Employees are very often up against challenges that are not in their control. They need to know, in your conversation with them, that you have regard for their challenges.

#3: Your employee denies the issue.

You’ve received reports from team members that Kathryn has been gossiping about other members of the team and complaining about a variety of things. This wastes other peoples’ time and is a downer for the team.

You approach Kathryn with “I’ve received feedback from members of the team that you have been gossiping about others and complaining about things you’re unhappy about.

Predictable response:

The first things she asks you is “Who told you this?”

Not-so-great reaction:

You reply, I’m sorry to say, “That isn’t important.” Wrong answer!!! You see, this disregards your employee’s feelings, and it doesn’t help you.

A better response:

The better answer is, “I understand why you’re interested in knowing who talked with me, but just as I would hold your feedback in confidence, I would like to do the same with the individuals who shared this concern with me. If it’s alright, I’d like to talk about the situation.” As I mentioned earlier, we call this approach, affirm then redirect.

Your acknowledgment of what matters to Kathryn shows regard for her.

You’re through this hurdle, and now Kathryn moves to denial. This is predictable. You’re now deeply entrenched in a “he said, she said” scenario. Be careful about entering into a debate of some kind to prove blame.

If Kathryn is denying this, you could say something like, “I’ve not seen you do this myself, so I am not in a position to debate this issue. Let’s agree that this is not okay. If what you’re telling me is accurate, then agreeing to this should be easy.”

At this point, you will have your radar up, and you’ll be paying attention to make sure everything remains positive for the rest of the team. At the very least, Kathryn has learned from you that this is not okay.

#4: Your employee cries.

Yes. This happens.

The exact nature of your conversation is not necessarily relevant. It could be anything.

Predictable response:

Some employees cry. You can count on it.

Not-so-great reaction:

You tell your employee, “It’s okay, it’s not anything to cry about.”

A better response:

Hand your employee a tissue. If there is not one in the room, go and find one. Then wait for your employee to gather him or herself. You might even say, “Take your time.”

Whatever the situation is that leads your employee to become emotional, it may help you to keep a couple of things in mind.

  1. Some people cry easily, and it is a response they are not able to control.
  2. While a situation may not seem like a big deal to you, it may be to them.
  3. You are not responsible for their emotions, ultimately, but it is your responsibility to not make things worse by minimizing their emotion.

In all of the above situations, a common denominator is that employees want to minimize discomfort. They will react in ways that will help them save face, avoid embarrassment and protect their own dignity.

As a leader, I encourage you to join forces with your employee and help them accomplish the above. I’m not referring to the chronic problem employee. I’m talking about the day-to-day situations you need to address with your employees.

As you have conversations to address concerns, make it as comfortable for them to talk with you as you can.

We call this “teaming up with your employee against the problem.”

At Living As A Leader, we offer a Leadership Development Series designed to produce leaders that can positively shape the cultural environment, reduce turnover and achieve crucial business initiatives. We do this by providing training, coaching and consulting with a focus on pragmatic communication tools for leaders at all levels of your organization.

For more information, contact Steph Collins at

About the Author

Aleta Norris

Principal and Co-Founder, Living As A Leader®

Aleta Norris is an expert leadership coach and trainer with 30 years of experience developing leaders. She is also a highly sought-after speaker for annual meetings, keynote engagements, panel discussions and networking groups.

Email Aleta Aleta's Bio



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