Insights From Our Editors

3 Steps to Successfully Having a Tough Conversation

By Laurie Sorrenson, OD, FAAO

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August 9, 2023

Hey there! We’ve all been in situations where we must tackle a difficult conversation at work. Here are 3 steps to successfully having a tough conversation. 

It’s never easy, but addressing issues with an employee is crucial for maintaining a harmonious and productive work environment. Today, we will dive into the art of having a tough conversation with an employee, and explore how to turn it into a positive and forward-focused discussion.

Identifying the Problem
First, we need to be crystal clear about what the problem is before we initiate the conversation. Next, documenting three very specific instances of the problem and when the problem took place is a great place to start the conversation. Why three?  More than that and it feels like you are beating a dead horse, less than that may seem like you are bringing up such a rare issue that the problem may not be worth discussing. I have found that three documented examples seems to be the magic number.

What, Why, Forward-Focused Question
After the Problem has been identified with specific examples given, using the format “What, Why, Forward-Focused Question” 1 can be helpful. Let’s take a look at two examples of a potential problem in an optometric office.

  • Example:  Punctuality Problems
  • What the Problem is: “Over the past month, you’ve been late for work on three separate occasions.” (Show them the documentation)
  • Why it is a Problem: Punctuality is vital for our team’s efficiency. We need everyone to be on time to maintain a smooth workflow. Being late this often hurts your reputation with your team, and you can lose their trust.
  • Forward Focused Question:  
  •  “What steps can you take to ensure you arrive on time moving forward?” Or: “Do you need any support from the team to help improve your punctuality?” Or: “Help me understand the reasons for your tardiness so we can come up with a solution” Or: “What can I do to help you be on time?” I used this last forward-focused question with an employee, and after she explained that she turned off the alarm “in her sleep,” I bought her an alarm clock that physically jumps off the bedside table and has to be chased and caught to be turned off. That basically meant she had to get out of bed to turn it off, and it worked! She became significantly more punctual after that.

Example: Other staff complaining that one employee is not pulling their weight.

First, as I stated before, you need to get three specific instances where this has taken place. This complaint is a tough one, and I have sometimes found these kinds of complaints are more prone to be based on bias and/or lack of popularity. So, in this case, you need to be sure the complaints are real and specific.

What: “Your teammates feel that you are not pulling your weight and that they are getting burdened with some of the work you should be doing. Here are three instances where they felt that way.”

Why: “This is a problem because when this happens your team will lose respect for you as a colleague, things won’t get done as timely if they are taking on your tasks in addition to their own. The team will become frustrated and we want everyone to be able to count on you and be happy with the job you are doing.”

Forward-Focused Question: “Help me understand why these three things happened, so we can figure out how to make things work better.” Or: “What support do you need to enable you to help your teammates more?”

“Help Me Understand”: The phrase “Help me understand” can be a game-changer in transforming a conversation into a positive and productive one. Rather than jumping to conclusions or making assumptions, approach the conversation with a curious and empathetic mindset. For example, you can start with, “Help me understand the reasons behind the recent punctuality issues.” Or: “Help me understand why these three things happened, so we can figure out how to improve things.”

I want to credit Bethany Fishbein, OD, CEO of The Power Practice, for teaching me this phrase.  She was helping me navigate one of the most difficult conversations I ever had with an employee, and this strategy using “Help me understand…”  made a huge difference toward enabling me to have a positive and productive conversation.

Consequences of Inaction
While it’s essential to remain positive and forward-focused, it’s also crucial to discuss the potential consequences if the issues discussed remain unresolved. Be very clear as to the impact the problems could have on the individual, the team and the organization as a whole. Let the employee understand that addressing these concerns is critical for their professional growth and overall success.

I think it is unfair to the employee if the consequences are not discussed clearly and frankly. An example might be, “If you are more than 10 minutes late two more times this month, then you will no longer have a job here.” Or: “You will not be eligible for any raises until you are on time 90 percent of the time for three consecutive months. Not late means clocking in before 9 a.m.” Or: “If I have two more instances when you are not stocking the exam rooms before you leave each day, then you will no longer be able to work here.”

Conclusion: Tough conversations with employees are never easy, but they are an essential part of fostering a positive and productive work environment. By being clear and direct about WHAT the problem is, WHY it is a problem, and coming up with good FORWARD-FOCUSED QUESTIONS, you can create a stronger, more cohesive team!

1. Verus Global

Laurie Sorrenson, OD, FAAO, is president of Lakeline Vision Source in Cedar Park, Texas, and the Professional Editor of Review of Optometric Business (ROB). To contact her:

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