How To Carry Out An Uncomfortable Conversation

Ever have a team member under perform? Or maybe they were found to be lacking in character.

These are the times that call for uncomfortable conversations.

One of the toughest tasks we have as leaders is to carry out uncomfortable conversations. Usually the difficult conversation results in one or both parties leaving with hurt feelings.

Either you come off as too gruff or not stern enough. The feeling of unfinished business is left hanging in the air.

When we carry out an uncomfortable conversation, it’s best to have a plan or technique in place.

A great technique for having having a difficult conversation is the sandwich method. And no, it’s not give them a sandwich while breaking the bad news.

The sandwich method is carried out by using different layers for the conversation.

  • Begin by praising or uplifting the person you’re talking to: Let them know that you value them and that you see their potential. They’re part of the team and you like them.This helps to break the ice. You’re also starting off on the right foot by giving them a confidence boost.
  • You then move into the difficult conversation: Break the news to your employee after you’ve given a hearty amount of praise. They’re warmed up and know that you care. At this point, they’re much more receptive to hearing any bad news that may need to be told. Be gentle but be firm. Let them know it’s a serious situation and that things need to change.
  • End with more praise: Don’t leave the conversation on a negative note. Swoop in and give the employee another heaping of praise. Give them encouragement, letting them know that you have faith things will improve.

Can you see why this is called the sandwich method?

Consider the praise the top and bottom layers of the bread. They hold everything together. Without them, the meat of the sandwich would be all over the place.

The bad news, or difficult conversation, is the meat. It’s what the whole thing is about. Sandwiched between two pieces of bread, it’s safe and easier to digest.

While this won’t work every time you need to have a difficult conversation, it definitely helps and gives you a great starting point.

Question: What other techniques do you use when you need to have an uncomfortable conversation? Please share them in the comment section below.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

  • We laughingly say it like this at work: Nice suit, you stink, nice shoes.

  • Personally I am not a big fan of the sandwich because it differentiates positive feedback from negative feedback.

    About three years ago I started using a simple method of giving positive and negative feedback in the exact same manner. And I told my team what it would look like in advance.
    The wrong way (to me at least) was what I did prior to that. Good feedback was delivered with a huge smile and a pat on the back. A big “attaboy” if you will.

    Negative feedback was preceded by an invitation to visit the principal’s office and then a long drawn out, beat around the bush, finally get to the point extravaganza.

    So I told my team that from now on it would like look like this:

    Positive: “When you do X, here is what happens. Keep it up!”
    Negative: “When you do X, here is what happens. What can you do to change that?”

    Neither was delivered with extreme variance in emotion. Both were intended for one reason: to cause the desired future behavior, by either reinforcing a good one or correcting a bad one.

    That was my experience at least 🙂

    • Not all methods work for all people or situations. There have been times I haven’t been a big fan of the sandwich method either. I think it all depends on the delivery and reason behind using it.

      It sounds like you’ve got a good method to give both negative and positive feedback Matt. I’ll have to give this method a shot.

      • Joe, I am going to write a post about it (Someday) soon. It’s actually a very effective method I learned from a podcast called Manager Tools that I tweaked for my own use.

        • Sweet Matt. I look forward to reading it. Be sure to come back here and share the post!

  • DS

    In my mind people have had bad experiences with the sandwich method and so they think poorly of it.  Most of the time it’s because the feedback they’ve been getting doesn’t prepare one for this.  A lot of times it may leave them in an unsure state of mind – no one I know wants to be told they’re not doing a good job regardless of how you frame it.  Imagine you were the one receiving the same exact news delivered the same exact way.

    There’s a wonderful book called, “Helping People Win at Work,” by Ken Blanchard and Garry Ridge.  It has a thought process of “Don’t mark my paper, help me get an A.”  It’s a good read. http://www.kenblanchard.com/helppeoplewinatwork/ (not an affiliate link…)

    • DS, I think that’s true. When used poorly this method can damage rather than heal. It’s knowing when to use it and in what context.

      Thanks for the book recommendation. It’ll be added to my list of to-read books.

  • As a college instructor I often have to have these kinds of conversations with underperforming or failing students.  It has been a conscious decision, but I do exactly as your post points out.   I start with the good, move to the not-so-good, and end with either praise or empathy.

    • That’s great Dan. I take it you find the sandwich method to work well with your students then?

  • Generally I’m just brutally honest and it doesn’t come off well at times 🙂 I’m going to try this way out.

    • I can be that way too Kimanzi. Sometimes it’s easier just to be brutally honest. 

      •  There is such thing as lovingly honest too! I agree that honesty needs to take a front seat but a lot depends on what kind of a seat you have it on. Honesty couched in a little kindness goes a loooong way!

  • Caleb

    Sometimes it helps ease the tension if you let the person know that it’s difficult for you too but so important that you thought it worthwhile discussing it with them.

    • This addition is great Caleb. Sometimes shared pain helps heal wounds brought about by confronting the issues.

  • I use the sandwich technique. I have found it a very helpful and beneficial way to have a difficult conversation. When I was a youth leader I used this technique all the time. Great reminder and post.

    • Glad to hear it’s worked well for you Dan. Did it help your students and team respond more positively to the negative news?

      • I found that it did help, especially when I was counseling or mentoring a youth.

  • I like the sandwich method, but the bread (or the praise) has to be genuine and valid – not contrived just to ease the bad/uncomfortable news.  Nice reminder, Joe.

    • That it does Jon. If you’re doing it just to flatter the person beforehand it’s going to backfire. Maybe ending worse than not using the method at all.

  • Sandwich…interesting. 

    I think I’ll add lettuce to my sandwich (listening without an agenda, being open to hearing what they have to say).

    • I love that TC! But isn’t that more than just lettuce? It’s like adding lettuce and mayo or maybe mustard.

    •  I like that TC Avey!!! It’s important to go in and listen both to the verbal and non verbal. Great point.

  • I like how you end the post…it won’t work every time but it’s a great starting point. I like the idea and values behind the sandwich method – love people, understand them and treat them with dignity. I also agree with Jon, the praise has to be genuine.

    • I felt the disclaimer needed to be added. Too often we think every solution will work in every situation and it’s just not the case.

  • Good stuff, Joe. And I always try to remember it’s better to run at problems than it is to run away from problems.

    • Thanks Kent. And those are wise words you ended your comment with. Far too often we’re running when we should be standing and accepting the results of our issues.

      • Absolutely. I’ve found that the two things successful people positively run at instead of running away from are problems and decisions. Both are keys to being successful.

  • One thing to keep in mind is the timing of the feedback.  I made a commitment to my team to address performance issues right away, instead of hitting them with a list of “improvement areas” during an annual review.  I agree the sandwich method works – but only if related to a recent, specific event.

    • Great point Tom. It allows you to address the issue and turn it into a coaching moment. How have your people reacted to you doing this?

      • It has been positive all around – most people are used to getting feedback once a year instead of “in the moment.”  I am really doing someone a disservice if I don’t have those difficult conversations.

        •  That’s great Tom. Keep doing what your doing, your doing better than most managers.

    •  Tom, thanks for the addition. Timing is very important. There’s no reason to wait til the end of the year or review period. Correcting the issue right away is key to a healthy organization. Another downfall of waiting for the annual review is your team member may continue to make the same mistake over and over again. Creating a wave that builds and builds until it’s very difficult to stop.

  • Great suggestions Joe. I’ve learned how to have difficult conversations, comfortably over the last few years. But I haven’t always used the steps above. Things go a lot better when we use respect and love together with firmness, to carry on a difficult conversation. 

    • It’s awesome to hear you’ve having success in difficult conversations Juan. What other steps have you used to have successful difficult conversations?

  • Joe,

    I never make it personal.  I do not want the person to get defensive and stop listening.  There is a problem it needs to be addressed and I am here to help you fix it.  We are a team and you are not alone.

  • Makes a lot of sense, Joseph. Difficult conversations can seem like the worst experiences ever, but it’s often more damaging in the long-run if we don’t have them. Incidentally, one of Dale Carnegie’s first principles is right along these same lines: begin with praise and honest appreciation.

    • Nathan, I don’t think I’ve seen you comment before. Thanks for taking the time to today.

      It’s funny how we’re willing to sacrifice the long term for a little short term gain, huh? The conversation may sting for a minute but it’s better than taking no action and letting things get worse.

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