Managing the Art of Tough Conversations

Managing the Art of Tough Conversations

Even seasoned leaders can find feedback conversations about negative performance tough. Yet, 92 percent percent of people agree that, if delivered appropriately, negative feedback is effective at improving performance, according to a study by Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman published in the Harvard Business Review.

An appropriate feedback conversation is a short, specific talk that:

  1.  Draws attention to the performance issue
  2. Facilitates mutual discussion
  3. Inspires and confirms commitment to new behavior

To begin and guide such a conversation, leaders can use the I.N.S.P.I.R.E. feedback script:


Initiate the conversation in a respectful manner. Traditional feedback models often start with the person giving the feedback asking for permission. For example, you might ask a colleague, “Can we talk about what happened this morning?” Feedback is best received when you’ve been welcomed to provide it.

Sometimes, though, the conversation isn’t optional. You may need to be more direct. Even in those instances, you can establish respect. For example, you might say, “I need to talk with you today. Is this a convenient time or would you prefer this afternoon?” Initiate accountability conversations as close to the moment of concern as possible. Don’t wait three days to address something that happened this morning. Take care of it at the first opportunity.


Share your concern or observation.

  • “I’ve noticed there are paint drips on the floor when you leave a job.” 

  • “In listening to your calls, I’ve noticed you don’t connect with the customer.” 

  • “I noticed you arrived late this morning.” 

S—Specific Support

Provide specific, supporting evidence you can see.

  • “In the last two homes you painted, there were splatters on the hardwood in the dining room and on the rug in the baby’s room.” 

  • “When the customer told you he was calling to disconnect his line because his spouse had died, you didn’t express any empathy. You said you would be happy to disconnect the line.” 

  • “The meeting was scheduled for 9:00, and you arrived at 9:30.” 


After you present the situation, the employee needs a chance to talk. Ask a question in a neutral, curious tone to allow her to share any relevant information. Generally, “What happened?” is adequate and allows the person to share information or to own the situation.

  • “What happened in those rooms?” 

  • “What happened on that call?” 

  • “What happened that you were late?” 

Occasionally there will be an understandable reason for the poor performance. For example, the person may have been late because of a car accident. If so, be sure she’s OK and don’t carry the conversation any further. 


Once he’s had a chance to share his thoughts, invite him to solve the problem. Start with a review of the expectations, then ask for his thoughts on how to resolve the issue. If he can’t come up with an effective solution, you can provide specific suggestions on how the employee could improve. 

  • “Please put down a drop cloth every time you paint. You also should use masking tape to protect the molding from drips.”
  • “I suggest you take a moment to listen to what the customer is really saying, ask yourself what emotion he’s shared, pause, and use an empathy statement before you jump right into action.”
  • “Give yourself 30 minutes for a client call before your next appointment.”

Sometimes you may discover the employee simply needs more training.


Ask one or two open-ended questions to check for understanding and one closed-ended question to secure commitment.

  • “How would your results be better if you did that every time?” 

  • “What concerns do you have about this approach?” 

  • “Is this your commitment going forward?” 

Ask the employee to review her specific commitment: “Would you please recap what you will do next time?” 


Enforce the behavior and why it’s important while reinforcing your confidence that the employee can do this.

  • “Clean homes and use of a drop cloth are fundamental requirements of this job. In order for you to continue in this position, you need to do a quality job.” 

  • “I’ll check back with you on your next three calls and look for those empathy statements and customer connection.” 

  • “I’ll see you at 9:00 a.m. for the next meeting. You are an important member of the team, and we don’t make the best decisions without you.”

You might conclude with:

  • “I have every confidence you can do this well.” 

  • “I appreciate your taking the time to make this happen.” 

  • “Thank you for your work and commitment.”

When behavior doesn’t change, it’s often because the feedback is too vague, or the conversation goes so long that the employee forgets what he needs to do. Work to I.N.S.P.I.R.E. specific behavior change through managing the art of these tough conversations.

Excerpt from Winning Well: A Manager’s Guide to Getting Results Without Losing Your Soul, by Karin Hurt and David Dye.

Karin Hurt is a keynote speaker, top leadership consultant, and CEO of Let’s Grow Leaders. A former Verizon Wireless executive, she has more than two decades of experience in sales, customer service, and Human Resources. The author of “Winning Well” and “Overcoming an Imperfect Boss,” Hurt has been named to Inc.’s list of 100 Great Leadership Speakers, AMA’s 50 Leaders to Watch in 2015, and a Top Thought Leader in Trust by Trust Across America.

David Dye, founder and president of Trailblaze, Inc., a Denver-based leadership development business, is a professional speaker, trainer, and facilitator. He works with leaders, managers, and supervisors to increase their influence, solve common leadership frustrations, and improve their productivity through people-centered leadership. Honored as a top leadership expert to follow in 2015, Dye is the author of “Winning Well” and “The Seven Things Your Team Needs to Hear You Say.”