by Paul Casey

How to Have a Tough Talk with a Team Member

Having tough talks with team members is stressful but avoiding confrontation can make things even worse. Did you know that it actually takes more energy to deal with unresolved conflict than it does to address it head-on?

Managers spend 42% of their time addressing workplace conflict associated with people problems. Often the issues have festered to a point where the conflict has led to a business problem that requires management attention. Does that match your experience in the workplace?

Being able to embrace conflict and have tough talks with your staff is important for you, your team, and your company. Conflict is inevitable, but disunity is unacceptable. Let’s take a look at some practical ways that will help you embrace tough talks and learn how to do them well. First, we’ll look at why conflict is so difficult to confront, and then I’ll give you ten solid approaches that will help you hone your conflict resolution style.

In this Article:

  • Conflict vs. Confrontation
  • Why do we Avoid Tough Talks?
  • Pitfalls of Avoiding Tough Talks
  • 10 Ways to Get Better at Tough Talks

Conflict vs. Confrontation

Conflict occurs when parties with contrasting goals come in contact with one another. Jason Fried, entrepreneur, author and TED talk presenter said, “Conflict is a lot like water – it spills over; it flows downhill; and if left unchecked, it erodes whatever it touches. And sometimes like red wine, it stains.”
However, conflict and confrontation can be good things. Managed conflict can be a fertile ground for the exchange of ideas. It can force you to grapple with and expose what you really believe. It can help to reframe the meaning of “conflict” in your mind from something to avoid at all costs, to the pursuit of truth.

“Conflict is inevitable; combat is avoidable.”

Why do we Avoid Tough Talks?

We know that ignoring a bad situation doesn’t make it go away. In fact, not knowing how to resolve conflict properly leads to increased stress, dissatisfaction, anxiety and a host of other related issues. So why do we avoid it? Fear is usually the main culprit. Here are some common reasons many of us avoid confrontation:

  1. We want to be liked.
  2. We don’t have hope that it could turn out well.
  3. It could escalate and bite us.
  4. We feel we are not good at these talks. (self-doubt)

“Fear often undermines our abilities…robs us of our potential…destroys our strength.” – Harry Jackson

Pitfalls of Avoiding Tough Talks

When we avoid having difficult conversations, we usually end up with more problems than the one being avoided. The ripple effect of avoiding tough talks can be detrimental to everyone involved. Here are few of the pitfalls:

  1. The reputation of the organization and your team begins to erode.
  2. Your team will gravitate to the level of below-the-line behavior you tolerate.
  3. Motivation and morale begin to drop.
  4. Respect for the leader declines.
  5. People leave because it takes to much energy to work around the problem employee.
  6. Progress toward the team or company vision slows and becomes sideways energy.
  7. The problem festers and growth stops.

“Whatever you sweep under the rug becomes a tripping hazard.” – Paul D. Casey

Bull’s Eye is a membership community that includes everything you need to grow and develop your direct reports including quick and easy access to resources, plug-and-play tools, and templates and a community with other managers where you can network, ask questions (“Who knows of a good productivity app?”) and share information.
Check it out and Joint today!

10 Ways to Get Better at Tough Talks

You must be convinced that the consequences of staying the same (avoiding conflict) are worse than what could be on the other side of the confrontation. So, let’s get better at this! Here are ten things you can add to your tough talk toolkit that will get you to a win-win.

1. Sharpen your saw and deal with your issues.

If YOU are angry, depleted or want to lash out, this is the wrong time to confront someone. If you lose your cool, the issue will now be about your reaction, not their inappropriate behavior. Take some time to sort out your thoughts and emotions before having a tough talk.

2. Seek wise counsel from your mentors or coaches.

Discuss the situation with your boss or another colleague, a spouse or good friend. You want someone who will help you see all sides, not just agree with you. As the saying goes, “in a multitude of counselors there is safety.” It’s important not to isolate yourself. Isolated people don’t make good decisions.

3. Address it soon rather than later.

Resolution needs to be a top priority. If you’ve been thinking about having a tough talk, you’ve already waited too long. Remember the consequences to your team, workplace, and other relationships if you delay the conversation.

4. Don’t rehearse or worry about the other person’s reactions in advance.

Let it unfold in front of you; stay purposeful in what needs to be said and as emotionally neutral as possible. You CAN prepare for the conversation by outlining the facts of the situation, the causes of the conflict and identifying what you need, what they need and what the relationship needs.

5. Soften your attitude.

Set the stage that you want to work together to achieve a mutually satisfactory solution. Show that you value the person while getting right to the point. “Tough on the problem, soft on the person.”

6. Be specific about what happened and what needs to change; don’t drop hints.

The “what” stays the same, even though the “how” might be negotiated. Imagine putting the issue on a piece of paper and placing it in the middle of the room and asking, “Why are we here?” To be kind is to be clear.

7. Use the LEAD formula.

Listen…Empathize…Apologize…Discuss – in this order. For more about this formula read: LEAD Conflict Toward Resolution.

8. List what you have already done to resolve the problem.

If you haven’t been successful and the team member begins to blame or make excuses, drive them back to taking responsibility for their own actions. If they attack you, remember QTIP: Quit Taking It Personally.

9. Offer suggestions for improvement or your assistance in their journey to being successful.

Leaders should always approach with a “how can I help?” attitude. List all possible solutions and help them see the vision and practical steps to get there.

10. End with an agreed-upon commitment.

Take the time to document who will do what by when, and when you will check in. It’s a good idea to have the other person articulate the agreement. You need to hear the resolution from their own lips; you can’t assume they picked up what you laid down.

11. BONUS – Take time to reflect on how the tough talk went for you.

Use each confrontation as a learning opportunity. Did you demonstrate respect? What worked? What could you have done differently? Journal about the experience or debrief with a mentor or coach so that you can learn from any mistakes and build on what went well.


If you consider yourself a conflict-avoider, hopefully this article has helped you see the pitfalls of avoiding conflict and given you some practical tips to make having tough talks and little easier. We all face disagreements and encounter difficult people. Understanding that “conflict” doesn’t have to mean “combat” can help us approach difficult situations and people with a positive, solution-oriented, and caring attitude.


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