Communication Strategies: How To Engage Employees In Candid Conversations

April 19, 2017

Candid conversations with employees

If you’re like most managers, you know the frustration of realizing something is preventing an employee from performing better or is damaging morale, but don’t know what the problem is. Maybe you tried to find out from the employee or your team, and got nowhere. Maybe you haven’t tried because you believe nothing good would come from having such conversations.

Chances are, you’re not getting the information you want because employees are not having candid conversations with you. They’ve been around long enough to know the potential downside of giving your boss negative feedback or expressing discontent. So instead, they “suck it up” and soldier on…while becoming less engaged and less productive.

You can correct this unproductive situation by making it explicitly clear to employees that you are willing to talk about issues they might think are forbidden territory. You do this by “mentioning the unmentionable.”

Mentioning the unmentionable

With this approach, you bring up the obvious “elephant in the room” or a less obvious issue that an employee might be reluctant to broach due to the power differential.

Let’s say an employee doesn’t feel appreciated or feels that his boss’s feedback is off base. Although this belief might be causing him to care less and less about his work—and become disengaged—it would feel awkward to approach the boss with the topic. The thought of doing so would strike fear in the heart of all but the most assertive individuals.

Because most employees are unlikely to “mention” these issues, they never get resolved. A supervisor can communicate that “It’s OK to talk about this, if it is in fact an issue” by mentioning the unmentionable.

This conversation starter might sound something like, “Jason, I get the feeling you don’t agree with my assessment of how you handled that customer. Can you tell me what you’re thinking?”

Here are three other examples of mentioning the unmentionable:

  • “I’m curious if you feel like I was off base in the way I dealt with that yesterday.”
  • “Are you feeling like what I’m asking for isn’t reasonable?”
  • “In thinking about yesterday’s meeting, maybe I was too aggressive in keeping things on track. Did you feel like I was too abrupt in cutting people off or challenging them about the relevance of what they were saying?”

Getting to the candid conversations you need

Keep in mind that mentioning the unmentionable is the opening of a conversation; it isn’t the whole conversation.

Just because you ask a person if this is what he’s thinking or feeling doesn’t mean you agree with that perspective or will change your earlier position, decision, or request. In the performance review scenario, the person might say, “Yeah, thanks for asking. I am upset because I think your assessment of me isn’t accurate!”

This doesn’t mean you need to say, “Sorry about that. Please tell me where I went wrong and I’ll fix it.” It does mean that you want to hear what he has to say and are willing to talk about it.

Mentioning the unmentionable makes it more likely the person will honestly talk about what’s going on. Then you can work with it, which may mean:

  • Clarifying what you meant or why you did what you did
  • Discovering that your perspective was off base
  • Discovering that the person’s perspective is off base and that you need to help him or her develop a more accurate understanding of the situation
  • Developing a new approach or plan based on your updated understanding

By mentioning the unmentionable, you get to the candid conversations that resolve problems and strengthen relationships by showing you care. This creates a virtuous cycle of difficult conversations being easier to have. A stronger relationship means more trust, which means the other person will be more willing to discuss what needs to be discussed.

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About The Author

David Lee is the founder and principal of HumanNature@Work and the creator of Stories That Change. He’s an internationally recognized authority on organizational and managerial practices that optimize employee performance, morale, and engagement. He is also the author of Powerful Storytelling Techniques (ATD Press) and nearly 100 articles and book chapters, including one on using storytelling in onboarding in the third edition of The Talent Management Handbook (McGraw-Hill, 2017). You can contact him at, or follow him on Twitter at @HumanNatureWork.

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