Relationships matter in the workplace. Most likely, right at this moment, you can think of someone you need to have a difficult conversation with that could rock the balance of that relationship or of the firm itself. How will you address the issue? How will the individual react? Will this affect your work relationship? Could this upset the overall culture of the firm? With all of these questions circling around, you have also probably been putting off this conversation for some time now. If you think you are alone ­— well, you are not. A “Difficult Conversations Survey” reported that 97 percent of survey participants absolutely avoid straight talk.

Why is it that most partners and firm leaders struggle in really saying what needs to be said? What can we all do to better prepare ourselves?

He said: Addressing underperformance or bad behavior is one of the most difficult things leaders have to do. I have had more than one client tell me that he or she did not want to hurt an underperforming partner’s feelings by having a candid conversation. In today’s highly competitive environment for people and clients, leaders need to continuously assess their people, especially their partners. Do they have the right skills? Are they helping or hurting the firm by their behavior? Not addressing these issues with their people is not only hurting the firm, but is also doing a disservice to the personal growth of individuals. And when you find yourself in that position, the firm suffers. Partners don’t trust each other; hence clients are not served as well as they should be. This not only hurts clients, but also the firm’s bottom line.

She said: Supervisors also need to be careful that they are not overly aggressive in their straight talk. Some people are completely comfortable engaging in these conversations, but they need to be careful that confidence does not translate into hurtful backlash or appear as if he or she is micromanaging. Losing focus on proper techniques and moving to harsher scare tactics can be extremely damaging to the teams. Leaders need to take measures to equip those engaging in these difficult conversations with the skills to do it effectively and appropriately. Messages delivered, however factual they are, can be devastating if delivered poorly.

He said: Yes, let’s remember that straight talk focuses on a performance issue; it’s not an attack on the individual. In Steven Covey’s best seller, The Speed of Trust, he talks about straight talk: “Talk Straight is honesty in action. It’s based on the principles of integrity, honesty and straightforwardness.” It is important for a leader to identify specific things that need to be accomplished or changed, and not be afraid to let the underperformer know the consequences. For example, if you don’t do these two things in the next 90 days, you will be let go. There are no other options.

She said: Straight talk may be honesty in action, but it is also emotion in action. Quite frankly, some people are naturally more gifted in communication and providing feedback than others. The ones that struggle and don’t even realize how they come across are the ones who put your firm at risk. Good luck communicating with them on this as they are not known for their tact in giving or receiving feedback.

He said: Feelings are often what get in the way of having straight talk at all.

She said: Yes, so you need to be willing to take responsibility for all feeling — yours and theirs — and give people the time and freedom to respond to your straight talk. There are two people in these conversations. Before heading into these discussions, assess your feelings and make sure you do not go into these conversations assuming the other person’s feelings or responses. After your discussion, give the other person the opportunity to respond with their feelings and feedback.

He said: Straight talk conversations should begin with tentative talk statements. For example, “It appears that …” or “I wonder if …” statements make a claim that is based on inference, interpretation, suggestion, hypothesis — ways that move beyond blame but allow the other person the opportunity to explain the meaning or motivation of his or her actions. Starting difficult conversations with these phrases opens the door for receptive, clear dialogue. From there, both parties can come up with multiple solutions for a better outcome.

She said: I agree. Firm leaders could dramatically increase leadership profiles through focus on giving appropriate straight talk on a regular basis. It seems simple, but it is not. The ability to provide this kind of feedback sets the strong leaders apart from the mediocre ones.

Both said: While there are specific tips and techniques for having straight talk with anybody in your office, straight talk should not come as a surprise, since it addresses behavior. Avoiding these conversations will never solve problems or get the right people in the right seats. But being too aggressive during straight talk can lead to long-term negativity in the workplace. Done incorrectly, straight talk can hinder the growth of the firm, as it causes people to avoid interactions with certain leaders. Also, remember that before any straight talk conversation, you should consider emotions and establish desired outcomes that you would like to see as a result of the conversation.

August Aquila is a well-known consultant, retreat facilitator and author. Reach him at (952) 930-1295 or Angie Grissom is president of The Rainmaker Companies, which exclusively serves accounting firms. Reach her at (615) 373-9880 or

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