5 Steps to a Direct Conversation

It’s a familiar scene. Sally is in your office hoping that you can fix John. Fred has come to you to vent about a problem with Joe. Rather than addressing the topic between themselves, HR gets involved.

Most Human Resources professionals have been in the difficult position of running “interference” between people who don’t know how to have a direct conversation. The missing element is a known tool that individuals throughout the organization can use to have a productive, direct conversation.

Having a direct conversation involves five key steps. To illustrate the steps, we’ll use the example of Joe, who is consistently late to meetings. While it seems trivial, quite a bit of drama surrounds punctuality.

First, state the observable facts around the energy-draining behavior.

These must be facts, not judgments or stories. At this point, start with, “Joe, at the last 3 department meetings you were 10 or more minutes late.” At this point you can’t say that Joe is always late, or that he’s inconsiderate when he’s tardy because these launch you into a debate rather than establishing the baseline facts of the situation.

Then, follow with the meaning you create from that set of facts.

These are your judgments, evaluations, or the stories you make up about the individual and the situation. Usually this statement starts with “I think…, “In my opinion…,” Or, “I feel that…”  With Joe, you might state, “I feel that this is a pattern that shows disrespect to the team. In my opinion, this conveys that you think your time is more important than others’.”

The third, critical component of a direct conversation is to share your emotions regarding the dynamic.

While there are many lists of emotions, the set that covers the most common emotions in a direct conversation are: angry, scared, sad, ashamed, guilty, excited, numb and happy. It’s usually one of the first three of these. By sharing the emotion, the situation becomes both human (everyone feels these feelings sometimes) and prevents the emotion from going “underground” and erupting later. With Joe, you might express, “I feel frustrated (angry) every time you are late and worried (scared) that the team is fragmenting around it.”

The fourth step is to identify your part in creating the issue with this person.

This ensures that the direct conversation does not devolve into blaming or finger-pointing. Instead, share how you created or are sustaining the situation. With Joe, it could be that you never established an attendance policy or consequences for tardiness. It might be that your part is that you didn’t say anything the first time he was late. Or, you might not use the launch of your meeting well, which incentivizes tardiness.

Finally, state what you want—both from the other person and for yourself.

In this step, it’s important to be precise. There might be a request: “Joe, I want you to be on time to the meeting.” Or, you might discover a shared want, perhaps to feel valued in the organization and on the team, or to be productive and efficient.

Then it’s the other person’s turn to respond. Rather than the typical response of rationalization, justification or blaming the other person, coach them to listen just to understand. Your role is to guide the “Joe” in your company to reflect back what they heard from the other person – without interjecting their own interpretation. The goal is to comprehend the other’s views. Remind them: you don’t have to agree, just understand.

With this direct-conversation model, you can coach individuals to address issues between themselves, saving yourself time and energy. Plus, you might also brainstorm creative solutions to the issues!

Photo credit iStockphoto

About the authors: Kaley Klemp and Jim Warner are the authors of The Drama-Free Office: A Guide to Healthy Collaboration with Your Team, Coworkers, and Boss.  Follow them on Twitter and read more about their work with organizations at Drama Free Office.

About the Author

a Guest Contributor

We heart our guest contributors. Let's show them some Women of HR love!



Good one but you know many times it happens that person never reacting by words but it reflects by there behaviour in that case we need to become more sharp to understand and read those wrinkels of faces



Excellent article, the example made it simple to understand and practice. As you know, in our culture, direct conversations are so difficult but this article helps in understanding how such direct conversations will be helpful to deal with the situations quite effectively. Thank you for sharing.

Kaley Klemp

You’re right on! The goal of giving this tool to HR is to allow EVERYONE in the organization to have the skills to have the conversation without intervention (or with great guidance if necessary).

Kaley Klemp

Hi Kimberly,
Thanks for your comment! The important thing about sharing emotions is that if they are not explicitly named, they can “go underground.” It’s worse for a person to guess another person’s emotions rather than know. I’ve also found that the same set of facts and stories with a different judgment is actually a different issue – so sharing the emotion (while still in a mature, professional tone and setting) is quite important.

I love your “cheat sheet” for once the issue has been fully articulated. Your tips are great follow up for ensuring productive action.
Thanks again!

Debbie Brown

Great post for any manager- these dialogues are important- and feelings, my view- are ok. I believe it’s ok ground because no one can debate how you feel- and how you framed it up was professional and reasonable.

Krista Francis

I’m mulling over @Kimberly’s response. I think sharing emotions may or may not have a place in the conversation. To say you’re worried about how their behavior affects the team seems perfectly reasonable. And I’ve known my boss for 11 years; if he were to occasionally share an emotion, I would welcome that and I *would* care how he was feeling. I also think most of my direct reports over the years would care about my feelings as well.

I really like the emphasis on direct conversations. HR getting in the middle just muddies the water. Whether I’m talking to manager or employee, I have few conversations that don’t include variations of “Have you talked to him about this?” “Could you envision yourself sharing this with her?” “What did he say when you talked with her?” “How might you give your manager feedback on that?” etc. It’s a lot of rinse and repeat.

Kimberly Roden

This is a great article because it’s definitely direct. However (you knew that was coming, right?) a few of the examples here can also put this convo on an unproductive and maybe even combative path.

I don’t agree with (what is shared as the most critical component) of sharing emotions. If a manager wants an employee’s behavior to change, they need to remove the focus from themselves and shift it back to the employee’s behavior. Do you really believe that employee’s care about their manager’s feelings? Rarely, if ever, unless the relationship is THAT good. If this conversation is already taking place, the last thing an employee wants to hear is how his/her manager feels. Expressing the impact on the workload of the team or another work-related component has a much greater impact.

The final missing piece is for the manager to express a level of support to the employee with a behavior correction. Not implying that this is kindergarten but when employees know that the manager will do what they can, within reason, to assist them, it goes a long way. Behavioral changes do take time and patience. My quick and dirty cheat sheet is:

1. Address the issue/behavior in a non-threatening manner
2. Be clear about what the expectations are going forward so everyone is on the same page
3. Offer support to work together on making the situation a win-win with the goal of making the relationship mutually beneficial

If the relationship spirals downward, everyone loses. Thanks again for a great post!


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *