Leadership insights into tough conversations

It is rarely easy having tough conversations with employees or team members, especially when team members need to be held to account.

Hood Sweeney Performance Coaching Tough ConversationsLast week in our quarterly Coaching Club session for open-minded business leaders we discussed some of the best methods available to enable leaders to create open and constructive conversations.

Here’s a selection of some key insights we discussed in detail on the day.

Safety has to be at the heart of every tough conversation if you are interested in reaching an agreed outcome that also preserves the relationship. Your team members won’t open up candidly or properly explore solutions if there is a perceived threat in the conversation. Neuroscience has proven that we are hard-wired to pick up on perceived threats quickly - it’s an unavoidable subconscious survival thing!

Good leaders of high performing teams understand the role of safety. Good leaders are not only good connectors with people, they also create environments for willing contribution and high performance. Not surprisingly an engaged team performs better than a disengaged team. But in reality tough conversations are still an essential ingredient in engaged teams as tough conversations are very effective at stopping cultural drift and performance drift.

One of the tricks to turning a difficult conversation with a staff member into a productive one is to give the staff member choice in the conversation. Simple things like permission questions and asking for their take on events can go a long way to reducing the perceived threat in a conversation. These two simple tactics demonstrate respect and a willingness to listen… two things which can significantly contribute to calming or disarming an agitated or fearful team member.

It is also important to be clear on and then communicate clearly to the other party the purpose and objectives of the conversation in advance of the conversation. This simple act of ‘framing up’ adds an element of certainty which helps to make the conversation space safer. A safe space is a welcoming space and the participants will be much more open-minded and willing to prospect solutions rather than ruminate around their defence of a problem.

Which leads us to conversation structure. Conversation structure is a critical skill for all leaders. Our coaching clients are typically leading businesses anywhere from early growth start-ups through to mature Adelaide brand names but they all share a common trait: the recognition that the quality of their relationships reflects the quality of their business.

That makes conversation structure and mutually beneficial outcomes very important.

Accordingly we invest heavily in equipping our coaching clients with influencing skills and the four ‘PR’s’ are a very useful guide here: preparation, principles, process and practice.


In brief, prepare the conversation structure in advance, i.e. what is the framework? This is similar to producers story-boarding a movie. Where will it start, what happenings will it cover in the middle, and how do you want it to end? In support of this, work out a selection of the best questions you can ask. This obviously must honour and tie in with the purpose and objectives framed up earlier.


Principles are a line of intent that greatly help people to navigate a conversation. When you are clear on the principles you will adhere to in the conversation it is much easier to stay ‘true’ and avoid getting drawn into emotional flare-ups. For example, you could commit to the principle of confirming facts before engaging in any judgmental conversation. This helps to separate the people element from the problem. Another principle could be ‘we will remain forward-facing and solution-oriented’, which will help to stop people rummaging around in the past, usually trying to make excuses or apportion the blame to someone else!


Good leaders and conversationalists stay in control of the process. What then is the process? Easy, it’s the preparation and the principles! Master interviewer Andrew Denton is brilliant at controlling the process of the interview without getting heavily drawn into the content of the interview. He lets the interviewee own the content. Good leaders do the same in their business: they own the process and let the team own the content. In doing so they unlock two important elements of high-performing teams: empowerment and responsibility.


The fourth PR – practice – can take a dual meaning: by all means practice the process and principles with someone in advance of the conversation so you are comfortable with them, but also, the simple fact of choosing to have the conversation (rather than avoiding it, which is a common response) is great practice. Just like learning the piano, learning how to bowl a leg-break or learning how to cook, it is a skill. You will muck it up from time to time and rarely will it be perfect, but by at least having the conversation with some intent you will get better!

When using these techniques discussed in Coaching Club you can ensure that together both parties arrive safely at a mutually satisfying outcome without setting the relationship back (because when done properly the conversation actually adds to the relationship despite its difficult nature). These same principles work well in meetings, sales and project groups.

People and relationships are a pivotal part to the success of any business or team. Upskilling your ability to have difficult or effective conversations will serve you very well - after all, conversation is a universal trait.

This is just one of a number of abilities we work on with clients so if you are interested in improving the performance of your team or business and are an open-minded leader committed to that outcome then please avail yourself of a complimentary, confidential, no-obligation meeting at a place of your choosing (if in Adelaide, otherwise skype) to determine how suitable coaching is as a development tool for you, your business and or your team. 

As the leader of Hood Sweeney’s performance coaching team, Simon Starr works with businesses to help achieve outcomes such as those mentioned in the above.

Simon has worked and mentored directly with clients in the professional services, construction, retail, health, not-for-profit, state government, education, agriculture, property, medical, sport, hospitality, technology and viticulture. With a passion for performance in life and business, Simon brings a unique combination of skills, experience and knowledge with a level-headed perspective. 

For further information about Performance Coaching, contact Simon Starr at Hood Sweeney on 1300 764 200.

This advice is general advice only and has been prepared without taking account of your objectives, financial situation or needs; and because of that you should, before acting on the advice, consider the appropriateness of the advice, having regard to your objectives, financial situation and needs.