Coach's Corner

A selection from frequently–asked questions

Dear Coach,

There’s a person on my staff who needs to hear and take action on some serious performance issues but every time I try to approach her she becomes either belligerent or emotional? I know that it’s important that people feel safe, if you want to reach them with important messages, but this is too serious for me to sugar-coat the issues. How can I get my points across without pulling my punches and diluting essential impact and importance?


I can appreciate the dilemma but I’m going to suggest that the challenge lies in you not in her.

Yes, it’s very important that others feel safe in any important confrontation because if they don’t feel secure, you can’t retain their attention and interest so your communication will fail. Safety, however, cannot be achieved by sugar-coating or diluting the messages nor by pulling punches.

In any dialogue where you are attempting to share meaning and match understanding, the need is to balance candor with respect; you need to speak your truth while preserving the dignity of the other person. In normal dialogue this is not difficult but when one person feels they are threatened in any way it demands continuous positive and sensitive attention.

It’s like balancing a teeter-totter with one foot on either side of the point of balance – it’s dynamic -continuous small adjustments, nothing excessive or extreme in response, but rather careful balance and counter-balance between the two aspects, candor and respect.

One major challenge here is that we all want to be nice and so the way to proceed is to keep the sentiment of ‘nice-ness’ front and center throughout the conversation. This doesn’t work because candor is sacrificed.

Another problematic assumption is that emotionality can be inserted to convey or emphasize meaning and intention. But emotionality is hard to manage and even harder to read accurately so the message becomes distorted and our intentions are hi-jacked. Emotion also has a corrosive effect on rationality and respect since it will encourage matching responses and so it escalates, often out-of-control.

The third assumption is even more influential – that the success of any dialogue is dependent on both sides accepting and acting upon the outcomes. Nothing could be further from reality; all dialogue requires is that differences are heard and understood. One doesn’t have to like or accept what is conveyed, just to recognize that it represents a different view.

There’s time following the exchange for either side to carefully consider and assess the consequences of what has been heard and understood; any remedial action will ensue from this incubation. A good part of this involves the formulation of judgments and assessment of standards and then there’s a need for the development and refinement of options for possible change. This may take time and perhaps distance.

In many interactions of the type you’re seeking there’s an inappropriate rush to judgment and demand for committed action. This is all too often premature, unhelpful and even dangerous. It’s natural that people will require incubation time when confronted with unpleasant input and the intervention should be planned with this in mind.

You’re right, rather than wondering what you might say to your associate, you need to consider well how you might say it. First be very clear in your own mind regarding why you need to say it and make your motives as objective as possible. This means you must prepare your intention so that it’s elegant – simple yet powerful – and unambiguous.

You can start with respect by asking for permission to have the conversation and positioning it at a time and place that protects the dignity of the other person. State your intention, the reason why you are having the conversation, and a clear statement about the gap you discern between what is actually happening versus what should be happening using established, demonstrable facts.

Gain agreement that there is indeed such a gap and that it’s relevant to the stated intention; this can take some time during which you must listen as diligently as you present – in fact, recall the axiom that you have two ears and only one mouth - to be engaged in proportion.

If you shift to possible consequences of the gap at this point, you will likely trigger a complexity of thinking and feelings which may require time and space to sort and evaluate. A break in the process here can be very helpful and encourage appropriate initiatives in the other person. You can now present yourself as an ally in the change process at the call and discretion of your colleague.

Note that the delicate balance between candor and respect has to be maintained and time-outs can be your best option whenever the balance is strained. Do not be in a hurry to overwhelm others with your opinions, emotions, desired outcomes or charisma. Govern your own behaviors and encourage them to do likewise.

I hope this helps.