\u201cWhat\u2019s the hardest part of your job?\u201d \u201cTough conversations,\u201d he answers with a sigh. There it is again. Over the last six years, I\u2019ve been conducting an informal survey in Fortune 500 companies. I keep expecting managers to say their biggest challenge is something like, \u201cKeeping control of the budget.\u201d But tough conversations continue to be a serious issue. No matter your industry, or your position in an organization, engaging in important or difficult conversations is an uncomfortable aspect of our jobs. Why? Conflict makes most people nervous, so we avoid having those tough conversations, even if we know it may produce a better outcome. A study of more than 1,000 project managers across 40 companies found that if project leaders were willing to break a code of silence, they could substantially improve their ability to execute on initiatives. This included over 2,200 projects, from $10,000 IT projects to billion-dollar restructuring efforts. But what did the code of silence surround? The key problems that lead to most project failures: unrealistic deadlines, sponsors without internal influence, or unsupportive teams. These issues should have been addressed immediately. But the code of silence allowed them to balloon into major problems. We have many reasons to avoid difficult conversations: \u201cIf I ignore it, perhaps it will go away.\u201d \u201cShe\u2019s so busy. I shouldn\u2019t waste her time.\u201d But what happens then? The behavior continues. Many managers have admitted they are uncomfortable addressing even small issues: coming in late, failing to collaborate, and believe it or not, personal hygiene! They avoided the issue until they had to involve HR. What a disservice to the employee, the organization and themselves! One small conversation, though uncomfortable, could have turned that person around\u2014saved a career and avoided the need for costly actions by the organization. Honest conversations build trust and appreciation. Everyone can tell a story about someone giving them straightforward advice. It stung at the time, but gave us insight into others\u2019 perceptions. What a gift! Those tiny conversations are often the turning point in a life or career. Coaching Isn\u2019t Telling Coaching techniques ease the pain of tough conversations. Coaching is different than supervision. It is not about telling someone what to do. It is about two people working together toward a positive outcome in performance, behavior or relationships. Connect, learn, act. Follow these three simple steps every time you engage in a tough conversation. It creates an environment of trust, reminds you to listen more than tell, and creates a proactive action plan. Step 1: Connect Identify an opportunity to help. What performance metric or behavior needs to be discussed? Example: John\u2019s been coming in late. "John, I\u2019ve noticed that you\u2019ve been arriving about 15 minutes late for two weeks." Are you both prepared? Pay attention to the setting and mood. If it\u2019s not right, set a different time. "I\u2019d like us to sit down and talk. Can we do that now, or would it be more convenient during lunchtime?" State your positive intentions. Let the person know that this is not punitive. "John, I value everything you bring to our team. I want us all to work together." Step 2: Learn Uncover perceptions. Ask open-ended questions. They require long, narrative answers and are the opposite of closed-ended (\u201cyes/no\u201d) questions. "John, could you please tell me about your mornings and your commute?" Listen reflectively. Reflections clarify your understanding. "What I hear you saying is that your wife\u2019s new job is farther away. You\u2019ve had to reverse morning duties permanently. Tuesdays are tough since the kids take a special bus. Is that right?" What strengths can be leveraged now? "You are one of the best people on the team for time management. Could you use some office strategies for your mornings?" Create a vision. Get a picture of the perfect outcome that you can both agree upon. "John, if you could describe a perfect week, with you fulfilling your family\u2019s needs and being a reliable team member, what would it look like?" Brainstorm ideas to make it happen. "Your kids could stay at the neighbor\u2019s for 10 minutes some mornings. We know Tuesdays are tough for you so we\u2019ll make a 15-minute cover plan. We\u2019ll ask Janice, our intern, to cover your desk on certain mornings. We could team-teach your expertise so others can answer questions, etc." Step 3: Act Take action. Reiterate why you\u2019ll be taking action immediately. "We\u2019re making a plan right away for this new schedule because we can\u2019t be left without technical expertise, and we want your family to have a comfortable routine. We also want the team remain supportive of you." Collaborate on next steps. Choose one action for each of you to take. "John, I\u2019ll speak with Janice today about covering your desk on Tuesdays. You contact your neighbor to trade mornings." Discuss how to be successful. "Please share your new schedule with the team. They need to understand so they don\u2019t make up reasons." Set a SMART (Specific, Measurable, Action-based, Realistic, Time-bound) goal. "I will speak with Janice by the end of today. She\u2019ll cover your desk tomorrow. Please tell the team today about your challenges and your plan. By Friday, we\u2019ll discuss your full plan. Then on the following Monday, you can present to the whole team." Commit to follow-up. "Let\u2019s set a meeting for next month. We\u2019ll assess how it\u2019s going for you, the team and your family." Enjoy the Collaboration One important tip to remember: The step people usually want to skip over is Learn. People want to get to a solution quickly, and we all believe we know best, right? So after supervisors make a connection, they often start telling the person what to do. Instead, be a coach. There may be a far better process or solution inside the mind of the person you are coaching. This person has to come to a solution themselves. Enjoy learning just how creative and collaborative your team can be, and enjoy the outcomes of those conversations.