Speaking Up for Leaders: How to Have Difficult Conversations

by Alli Polin on July 15, 2014

Leaders have difficult conversations
I’ve been following Michelle Mazur for a long time on social media and have always been impressed with her wit and deep expertise in public speaking.  While this post is far from funny, I’m honored to introduce you to Michelle!  


They were calling people up to HR – one-by-one to lay them off.

We gathered around our phones just waiting for the call that we lost our jobs.

Hands were shaking. Tears were flowing. We didn’t know who was getting the call to the executioners office next.

Finally, a VP came down stairs and announced that the rest of us were “safe” and that we should go to main conference room.

The CEO was waiting for us. She looked visibly shaken like she was having the worst day of her life (weren’t we all).

How a leader communicates at a time like this one can make or break the morale of a company for years to come.

This CEO told us that it had been a hard day (no kidding) and that we should all take the rest of the day off, and return tomorrow when business will resume as normal.

Normal? She was kidding right? Everyone of the “survivors” was shell-shocked and didn’t know what was happening.

There was no “normal” to go back to.

Leadership means having a difficult conversations especially when a business is fighting for survival.

As a leader, how can you navigate the murky waters of delivering bad news?

The job of a leader is to create a positive experience, so how can you turn it around?

1. Create a culture of communication

After surviving a layoff, people want one thing to be heard. They want to be able to ask questions and to make sense of what happened.

As the leader, your job is to provide that forum for communication to happen. A safe place to ask questions whether that’s in a company wide meeting or during a one-on-one.

Open communication is essential part of recovering successfully after a difficult experience in an organization.

2. Listen – really listen

People want to been seen and heard. As a leader, there comes a time when you have toclose your mouth and open your ears.

Be present. Focus on what is being said. If your mind begins to wander, re-focus on what the other person is saying. If you’re thinking about how to respond to what’s being said, you’re not listening.

In difficult conversation, it’s almost impossible not to lose focus and plan what you’re going to say in response.

It’s pertinent to stay present. Paraphrase back what you heard to make sure you understood what was said and then respond.

3. Develop deep empathy

Imagine what it would be like for your people to hear the message you’re giving.

If you were among them in the conference room instead of doing the speaking, how would you feel about what’s being said.

Would it be reassuring? Does your message make you feel safe, secure, or hopeful?

Think strategically about how the message is going to received by those you lead and the tweak the message accordingly.

4. Paint a vision for the future

After a layoff, the loss of a big client or any other challenge for a business, there needs to be a vision for the future.

It doesn’t have to be sunshine, unicorns, and sparkles, it can be a vision of hard work, creativity, and ingenuity.

But those you lead need to feel that you’ve got it covered. You know what should happen next and if you don’t know personally you’ve got a team who can help you figure it out.

Create a vision of the future that people want to help you create.

I’ll never forget the day that the layoffs happened. It changed the company I worked for forever.

As a leader the way you communicate in challenging times dictates whether your organization thrives or barely survives.

How you communicate with those you lead can give them hope for a brighter future.

11Michelle Mazur is a Speech Designer & Idea Architect helping entrepreneurs get their ideas out of their head and communicated to those who need to hear it most.  She is the author of Speak Up for Your Business :: Presentation Secrets for Entrepreneurs Ready to Tell, Sell, & Compel which is available now on Amazon.


{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

Tom Rhodes July 15, 2014 at 11:29 am


Thank you for sharing this post. Having difficult conversations, and how a person has them in my opinion can often define the difference between a Manager and a Leader. In looking in the mirror I would say it is a weakness for me. So to learn more about how to do it better, I am actually co-hosting a #leadwithgiants chat on the subject in August.
Anyone can give people bad news. Leaders take the time to understand what the bad news will mean, to the person, those in the persons circle and those that did not receive it. And leaders address it through real communications. Everything changes and failure to see, feel and address that change is no leadership.
Difficult conversations with people are hard. Handle it as though you were on the other side of the desk, because if you don’t you may be.



Alli Polin July 20, 2014 at 3:10 am


I really appreciate your insights on this! I’m looking forward to your upcoming tweetchat. It’s such an important topic – appreciate the opportunity to be a part of the dialog with you.



LaRae Quy July 15, 2014 at 3:09 pm

Thanks for sharing Michelle’s post today!

Love this sentence: “The job of a leader is to create a positive experience, so how can you turn it around?”

Yes, if leaders could only learn how to turn experiences into positive ones their teams would be happier…and more productive!


Alli Polin July 20, 2014 at 3:11 am

Excellent question, isn’t it? It’s one that we should all ask ourselves. We always have a choice… darkness or light.

Thanks so much, LaRae!



Karin Hurt July 21, 2014 at 8:21 am

I have had to be the bearer of bad news far more times then I care to remember over the course of my career. I will never forget the day I was visibly distraught over breakfast and my husband said, “if I had to be fired, I would want to be fired by you.” Those words completely changed my perspective for that day and for the rest of my career. I realized that there is an important need and gift to offer in really bad times. As awful as it is, showing up real, authentic, compassionate, and helpful really does matter. Never take for granted how vital your role can be even when it sucks.


Alli Polin July 22, 2014 at 12:10 am

Thank you for sharing that, Karin. Your husbands words absolutely ring true. It’s a moment in someone’s career that they will never forget and each of us gets to choose the legacy we will leave through not only through our actions but also our way of being.




Leave a Comment