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How to Say Hard Things to Good People at Work

How to Say Hard Things to Good People at Work _ Red Cape Revolution

If you’re a leader of people, projects, or processes, there will come a time when you’ll have to say hard things to good people at work.

It’s inevitable.

The hard things might be issues that emerge in your company’s regular performance management process. But more often today, we have to find a way to say hard things to good people all along the way at work.

These three strategies –and the scripts that accompany them–are designed to help.

How to Say Hard Things To Good People at Work

Here’s how to get started

First, decide on the specific situation where you need to say hard things. Picture that person in your mind.

Where will you be sitting? What time of day is it? Remember, you’re always more successful when you schedule time for a tough conversation so that it’s set apart from the day-to-day frenzy. (More on “framing the ask” in step 2 of my article, “Tough Conversations at Work: Scripts for When It’s Time to Change.”)

As you read through the article and the scripts, with the person and place in mind, speak all of the scripts out loud.

Which sound like you? Which feel relevant to the situation?

Pick only one or two that feel natural and truthful to you.  They’ll help you transition into the conversation with more ease.

Ready? Let’s go deeper.

Strategy 1: Acknowledge That This Sucks–For Both of You

The one thing that we all have in common is that we’re human.

And as humans, we’re biologically wired to want cooperation, collaboration, preservation of the species.


Sure, some people’s wiring gets crossed, but for the most part, we want to get along because it protects us.

That’s why giving negative feedback at work can be so hard. Even though we won’t die from it, our brains send the same signals to our bodies, warning us that we may be violating the rules of the tribe.

It’s just human, so clearly enagaging  your humanity is a smart conversation strategy.

What you can say to remember you’re both human:

  • I think we both would prefer not to have this conversation; so thank you ahead of time for being open to the conversation.
  • This is awkward for both of us, I know.
  • I appreciate your courage in listening to what I have to share. It’s taken me courage to share this with you, too, so I get how hard it is.
  • This is probably not a fun conversation for either of us, I think.
  • I’ve thought about this a lot, and chances are, I won’t say this perfectly, but I wouldn’t be helping you any if I didn’t get this concern on the table.
  • I’m going to ask for your patience in advance. I need to share some concerns with you and there’s a chance it won’t come out right the first time, but I didn’t think it was fair to you to wait to tell you what I’m seeing.

Strategy 2: Don’t “Sandwich” the Hard Info

In the old days, conventional wisdom was that if you were sharing tough news or negative feedback, that the best way to deliver it was to give a “feedback sandwich”–basically: praise first, meaty problem in the middle, followed by another slice of praise.

Please stop feeding your team feedback sandwiches. We’re choking on them.

Here’s why this outdated method doesn’t work.

Our beautiful brain is wired to keep us safe. It’s always scanning the environment, processing what’s around, anticipating what’s next.

When we hear the positive at the beginning and end, our brains pay attention. That’s white flag that “all’s clear here–no need to waste calories of attention.”

And so we can miss the urgency of the meat in the middle.

Also, if you’re a habitual sandwich stuffer, your team starts to see it coming. When that happens, any true praise you’re sharing trains others that there’s a “but” coming up–and so the praise feels phony.

What can you say to avoid the sandwich:

  • I’m going to get right to it,  because you deserve to know what I’ve been noticing.
  • In this conversation, we need to dive into the issue of X, because it’s starting to get in the way of all the other good work you’ve got going on.
  • When I put myself in your shoes, I can imagine this isn’t fun to hear, but I respect you enough that I’d be doing you a disservice if I didn’t share this with you.

Strategy 3: Let it Breathe

Many leaders believe that all should be fine after they’ve shared the feedback. Issues will resolve. Behavior will change.

It rarely happens that way.

Why? Once you’ve planted the seed, you need to step away and let it grow.

It works the same way for our hard conversations. We need to give them time to take root and breathe before diving into them again.

What to say to let it breathe:

  • We don’t need to solve this today–I just wanted you to know what I’ve been noticing.
  • We can keep talking if you like, but it’s feeling like it’d be more productive to let us both go and think about this more, and come back together in a few days. What works best for you?
  • I want you to have time to think more about this and ask any questions you may have. What feels like the right amount of time for you before we schedule a followup conversation?
  • Hey–just to say it. This didn’t start happening in a day, and I don’t expect it’ll change in a day. I’d like you to take a few days to think about what you need from me so that we can reverse this trend.

Okay, What’s Next?

When the conversation is over, congratulate yourself on getting it done.

No matter how it went.

Truth is, you can never control the outcome of a hard conversation.

All you can control are three things: everything you do, everything you say, and everything you think.

So you started the process by being brave enough to say what needs to be said. Decide on the next thing you need to say or do, and take it a step at a time to help that good person make the most of the hard information.

Hey—want more help?

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Read this next:

Is it Time to Have a Tough Conversation at Work? Here’s the Script (& How to Get Started)