It’s probably impossible to go through life without having a difficult conversation. Telling your spouse you want a divorce, coming out to your parents, quitting your job, or firing an employee are some obvious examples. Whatever the subject matter, a difficult conversation is — well — difficult. These five steps might help.

Step 1:  Preparation.  Start by thinking about what happened.  Where does this situation originate, with you or with the person you’re planning on telling?  What’s at stake for you in having this conversation?  How are you feeling?

Step 2:  Purpose.  What do you hope to accomplish by having this conversation?  Is this the best way to achieve it?  What happens if you avoid the issue?

Step 3:  Presentation.  Present your story in as neutral a fashion as possible.  Share your purpose in having this conversation, and share your goal.

Step 4:  Listen.  Allow equal time to hear and, more importantly, to understand the other person’s viewpoint.  Ask questions to clarify, and don’t forget to acknowledge emotions.  If accusations and blame start to interfere, think about how you would feel if the situation was reversed.

Step 5:  Solution.  If you’ve gotten to this point in your difficult conversation, congratulations!  You are now ready to brainstorm options and invite proposals moving forward.

Let’s apply these five steps to an imaginary situation.  You’re a business owner and your office assistant is getting on your last nerve.  Your first instinct is to fire her because she seems to have little regard for punctuality and efficiency.  Yet if you do, there’s going to be a considerable amount of time spent in hiring a replacement, training the new person, and adjusting to the inevitable learning curve.  So instead of terminating her employment, you’ve decided to give her one more chance.  It’s not an easy conversation.

Step 1:  Prepare for the talk by thinking about what you’re going to say, and when.

Step 2:  Understand your purpose in having this conversation.  Are you merely prolonging the inevitable, or do you see some potential for improvement?

Step 3:  Present the situation to your assistant calmly and as neutrally as possible.  Cite specific examples and how each affects the company.  Then be sure to explain what you hope to achieve by having this conversation.

Step 4:  Ask for her input.  Maybe she has an underlying reason for her tardiness.  Maybe she’s been distracted by a personal problem.  Be sure she knows that you see her as a person, not as an implement.  (It’s called empathy, by the way, and it’s a wonderful thing to have.)

Step 5:  Now you’re both ready to fix the problem.  Ask what she would do if she was in your shoes.  Would changing her starting time be of benefit?  Can you live with that?

This is just one of many difficult conversations.  They’re not easy to have, but they also don’t have to be quite so difficult if you do some of the work in advance.

If you’ve got a difficult conversation looming ahead, please let me know how I can help.