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Winning Tough Conversations at Work

Our communications coach offers a four-step process for making difficult conversations more productive

Anyone who runs a small business knows that getting the most out of employees, vendors, and customers requires having uncomfortable conversations and dealing with problems head on. Business owners also know that putting off such conversations will often make problems worse.

Think about the behaviors you might need to address at your company: the employee who always has an excuse for showing up late, frequent incomplete invoices from a vendor, or a regular customer who often calls at the last minute and gets upset when you can't work her in for an appointment. Each of these scenarios involves changing another person's behavior and can often be resolved with an honest conversation, however uncomfortable it is to have. To get the most out of such a conversation, managers should structure it following these four steps.

Step 1. Preface the conversation with commitment to the relationship. People are more inclined to change their behavior when they appreciate just how much you care about the relationship.

Step 2. Fill emotional tanks. Employees are hungry for praise and recognition, something they don't get as much of as they should at work or at home.

Step 3. Replace "you" with "we" as much as possible and don't verbally attack the person. Don't put people on the defensive. Be inclusive by talking about the situation as something you both have to work on.

Step 4. Sell the benefit. If your conversation is all about "me" and how someone's behavior damages "my business," it does little good. Show the other person how they will benefit by changing their actions.

Now let's apply these four steps to the following scenario: A creative person on your team does good work but consistently turns in his projects late, causing customers to wait and other members of your team to become increasingly frustrated. Here's the twist. Although he's always late, the work he eventually performs is exceptional and you don't want this individual to quit nor do you want to fire him. Let's see how a conversation using the four-step process could help change his behavior.

Step 1. "John, can I speak to you for a moment about your work on the latest project? I value the contribution you make to the success of this company, and I would like to discuss an idea that could improve our team dynamics and increase our client satisfaction.

Step 2. "John, you are one of the most creative designers I've ever met. My jaw dropped when I saw the work you did on that last project. Your work is exceptional.

Step 3. "As we all know, the project was turned in late and, while the client was ultimately satisfied, extending the deadline caused the client a great deal of frustration. Let's talk about how we can get all of the tasks completed on time—or even ahead of time—to meet the clients' needs and to keep them coming back.

Step 4. "If our clients can find a vendor who is cheaper and still does a decent job, they will probably leave us. In order to keep their business, we need to continue our exceptional work while exceeding their expectations by coming in ahead of schedule, not behind. If we lose this client, we'll be in tough spot, and I'll be forced to make cuts to save money. We all need to meet our deadlines. Here are some ideas I'd like to share with you. I'd like to hear your input as well..."

As you can tell, this is not the entire conversation that would have to take place in order for our employee to change his behavior. The rest of the conversation would include a lot of careful listening as well as a discussion of specific actions to be taken. But the first few minutes of the conversation set the course. Follow the four-step process to make your listener receptive to your message, turning a tough discussion into a productive one.

Carmine Gallo is a communications coach for the world's leading brands. He is a speaker and author of the new book "Fire Them Up"

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