How To Have Hard Conversations as a Leader

How To Have Hard Conversations as a Leader

Having hard conversations is one of the most difficult parts of being a leader.

But it’s also one of the most important parts of your role.

We’ve never met someone who enjoys addressing a problem employee, putting someone on a PIP, or even needing to let someone go.

None of that is fun.

But there is a big difference between short-term discomfort and long-term harm that’s caused within the business by avoiding these conversations, so the quicker you learn how to effectively have these conversations…but better everyone will be for it.

Leila Hormozi, Managing Partner and CEO of developed an incredible process for easing the pain of having these difficult conversations, along with strategies to make these meetings as effective as possible.

Her insights inspired this post, and in this article we’ll cover:

  • Why you need a system for hard conversations
  • The “6 E’s” framework for having difficult conversations
  • The “4 A’s” of managing dialog
  • Bonus suggestions for mastering this skill

Let’s begin.

Why You Need A System For Hard Conversations

The reason why most leaders struggle with having difficult conversations is that they don’t know how to effectively conduct them.

They also struggle because there is nothing fun about having hard conversations…thus they avoid having to deal with them like the plague.

And this is completely normal.

However, it’s important to realize that getting good at having hard conversations is a skill YOU CAN LEARN, and no one is naturally gifted with it.

And if you want to be a great leader, you need to learn how to master the skill of having hard conversations.

But how does someone master this skill?

The easy answer would be “practice makes perfect” and “through repetition”.

But if you are putting in the reps and practicing the wrong way…you won’t be doing yourself any favors, and you ultimately won’t be improving this very important skill.

In fact, you’d likely be building bad habits that will be hard to break in the future.

That’s why Leila developed her framework for having difficult conversations because it helped create a playbook and an outline for exactly how to approach difficult conversations to ensure the problem is addressed, there is a plan in place to fix it, and both parties are aligned moving forward.

The “6 E” Framework For Having Difficult Conversations

Here is the framework Leila has developed and found to be the most effective for having difficult conversations with your employees.

Establish Tone

When first beginning a conversation you know will be difficult, it’s important to establish the correct tone. Doing so will set the stage for the rest of the conversation.

Depending on the severity of the problem you are addressing, it’s best to come right out of the gate and tell the person that this is going to be a different type of conversation than you normally have with them, and that there is a problem that needs to be addressed.

This won’t be easy for the person on the other end to hear, but you can guarantee you will have their attention.

Eliminate Assumptions

Since you just set the stage and established the tone of the conversation, the person you are talking to will likely have a million scenarios running through their head.

  • “What is going on?”
  • “What did I do?”
  • ”Am I getting fired?”

Don’t make the person suffer through this.

Eliminate assumptions and put all the cards on the table.

If their job is not at risk, be upfront and say that it isn’t at risk.

If their job is at risk, clearly state that their job is potentially on the line, and that’s why what you are about to say is extremely important to address.

Whatever the case is, be upfront right from the beginning so the person can stop guessing in their mind, and they can focus on the rest of the conversation.

Explain The Goal

Next, it’s time to explain the goal of the conversation.

At this point you haven’t brought up the issue (that’s still to come), but you need to be very clear about what the expectations of the rest of the conversation will be.

If it’s a fairly minor issue, you can say the goal of the conversation is to make sure they are aware of the problem and identify a plan to fix it.

If it’s a major issue, the goal is to have them leave the conversation with 100% clarity for what the issue is, and that you never what to have this conversation with them again.

Either way, the person knows EXACTLY what to expect from the rest of the conversation.

Explain The Problem Origin

The first three steps should take no more than 5 minutes.

It’s short, but doing those three steps correctly will make this next step flow smoother.

Which is to identify the origin of the problem.

Many leaders tend to sugarcoat this part of the process, but that’s not helping anyone.

Be VERY CLEAR about what the problem is, and when you became aware of it.

The more specific you are the better, because the person can then begin to put context to why they are having this conversation in the first place.

Emphasize The Impact

Now that you’ve addressed what the problem is and when the problem started, it’s time to explain WHY this is such a problem.

Many times the person will not be aware of how their actions, behavior, attitude, performance, etc, are impacting the company.

Again, do not sugarcoat your explanation here.

  • Is this problem causing issues with team morale?
  • Is this problem impacting the bottom line of the business?
  • Is this problem damaging the company’s reputation?

Whatever is, explain the impact of this problem in order to give more clarity to the situation.

Estimate Severity

The final step of this process is to give a “score” to the level of severity of the problem.

On a scale of 1-10, where 1 is a very minor issue and 10 is a catastrophic issue, let the person know exactly how severe the problem is.

By doing this, it leaves no room for misinterpretation or miscommunication.

The 4 A’s of Managing Dialog

During the 6 E’s framework, you as the leader should command the floor and lead the entire conversation up to this point.

Now that everything is on the table, it’s time to let the person speak and address what they just heard.

However, many times this turns into the person trying to define themselves and a rant ensues…and that will derail all the progress you made up to this point.

Instead, there are four steps Leila recommends you go through when opening the floor for the person to share their thoughts.


To start, simply ask the person what are their thoughts on what you just told them.

Typically people will respond one of two ways:

  • Taking accountability
  • Going into defense mode

No matter what the response is (positive or negative), do not let the person go on a tangent.

You need to let them speak and express their thoughts, but there’s a fine line between that and letting them go on a rant.

If that’s the direction you can tell the conversation is going, address it quickly and regain the flow of the conversation.


Now that the person has expressed their thoughts on the problem you have brought to their attention, the next step is to advise on what you think will resolve the issue.

This is where you as the leader get to coach the person and tell them exactly what behaviors or actions they need to do to correct the problem.

This is something you should already have a plan about prior to the meeting, and you should have very clear examples of what the correct behavior and/or actions should be.


At this point, you both need to come to an agreement on what the next steps are going to be to ensure the plan you went over with them is actually put into action.

  • How often will you meet moving forward?
  • How will the person know if their behavior/actions have changed?
  • What will be measured?

By doing this, there is no room for misinterpretation about what is expected of them and when the issue will be reassessed.


It’s now time to wrap the meeting up by assuring them of where you are leaving this conversation.

This is essentially a recap and summary of the entire conversation, and it typically ends with the same type of tone you started the conversation with.

If the conversation went as you expected, let the person know.

If the conversation didn’t go as you expected, you need to also let them know, and explain that there will be further conversation to address this moving forward.

Bonus Suggestions for Mastering This Skill

The framework above will drastically improve your ability to have productive difficult conversations.

However, here are some bonus suggestions to really master this skill.

Go In With A Clear Head

A lot of times you as a leader will be emotionally charged up depending on the issue you are about to address with an employee.

Check that emotion at the door.

You can’t expect to lead and address this issue while you are in a very emotional state, so take the time you need before the conversation to clear your head.

Rehearse The Framework

It’s one thing to read this framework, but it’s another thing to practice it.

For each difficult conversation you need to have, actually write out bulleted answers to each of the areas of the framework, and practice them before you go into the conversation.

You won’t have to do this forever in your career, but as you learn to “build this muscle”, you need to practice the flow as much as possible until you have the confidence to conduct these meetings using this framework in your sleep.

Record The Conversation

This is easier done in a remote setting, but think of this as a way to of “recording and studying game tape”.

The best athletes in the world practice every day, but they take it one step further and review past recordings of their performances to see exactly what they did well and what they can improve upon.

Especially with difficult conversations, it will be hard to recall all the details of your performance and how you led the call, so having a way to review your recorded performance is highly recommended if you are able to do it.

Don’t Avoid Having Difficult Conversations

As we wrap up, the key takeaway is that if you are a leader in your organization, you can’t avoid having difficult conversations.

No one likes to have them, but they come with the territory of leadership.

But this framework is meant to help you improve this skill and make the process of having these difficult conversations as easy as possible.

Use it. Learn in. Practice it.

It’s an extremely valuable skill, and something you won’t regret spending the time to master.