There comes a time in every leader’s career that they must have that ‘difficult conversation’ with a team member.  Most often the person the leader must speak with is under-performing or acting inappropriately.  To avoid the conversation in hopes the problem solves itself is not only foolish thinking but also a dereliction of the leader’s duty to provide the guidance needed for individual and collective success.  Hence, the need for that difficult conversation.

Research provides a workable set of steps to not only have that conversation but also make the conversation conclude successfully (Grant, 2017).  The process of conversational mapping systematically guides leaders in developing a conversation ‘map,’ working backward from the desired outcome and, in doing so, identifying key themes, specific goals, values, and needs. Following these steps helps identify and avoid potential derailers and is useful in thinking through a strategic course of action. Follow these 6 steps to turn a negative situation into a positive outcome:

Phase 1.  Start with the end in mind. What do you want your team member to be thinking and feeling at the end of the conversation?

Phase 2.  What do you need to do during the conversation?  This phase is about getting prepared and remaining flexible so that you can shift tactics and style as the conversation unfolds. Prepare for those things that may throw you off (e.g., a highly charged emotional response). It is often useful to spend some time crafting out some taglines or phrases you can use to keep the conversation on track.

Phase 3.  Determine how to open the conversation.  Open the conversation with a topical frame of reference and purpose to facilitate a productive outcome.

Phase 4.  Conversation preparation.  Mind-sets, the ideas, and attitudes we hold when approaching a situation, have a major influence on our performance and outcomes. Take time to determine the mindset that you need to engage and facilitate the conversation. People do not change unless they feel understood and supported, so provide time for your team member to respond–and be prepared to listen with an open mind.

Phase 5.  Close the conversation by carrying the momentum forward.  Perhaps a written plan of action, but at least a verbal mutual agreement about what will be done in the future to improve the condition of concern.

Phase 6.  Have a follow-up conversation.  Schedule a follow-up conversation to gauge the success of the actions planned in the previous phase.  Revise actions as necessary and offer support to continue the changes and success.


Grant, A. M. (2017). Conversational mapping: Coaching others (and ourselves) to better have difficult conversations. Coaching Psychologist13(1), 34–40.