Talking Doesn’t Help! What Now?

by Maureen C Collins

Are there people around you who consistently miss deadlines, perform below your expectations, or frustrate you with irritating behavior and negative attitudes? Have you talked to them? Did your conversations make a difference?

Probably not! There are many conversations in which we think we have been clear on how we feel about someone’s behavior or attitude and we think we have agreed on what will change. But nothing does. How often have you said in frustration, ‘We’ve talked about this over and over! Why is it still happening?’

Conversations must get to the real problems to have any hope of solving them. The simplest conversation is about a one-off problem. This is something that has not happened before and hasn’t been discussed before. It might be with a supplier who missed a delivery date for the first time or with a new employee who made a mistake. A simple question, ‘What happened’, may solve the problem.

Often it doesn’t, and then we resort to nagging. Why are you late? You’re late again! I’ve told you before! Can’t you get it right?

As our frustration grows, the nagging become more emotional, with more blame and accusation. It also become less effective as the other person tunes it out. The real problem is that we are not addressing the pattern of behavior or the habit that has developed, and the longer it is left unchallenged, the more difficult it will be to talk about or to change.

When a conversation about a one-off problem does not achieve the change in behavior that you want, the next conversation must address the pattern of behavior. These are more difficult conversations and the temptation is often to put them off for as long as possible. This however gives the impression that you are okay with the behavior, and in the long term you will have even more difficulty changing it.

To open a conversation with someone who has started to come to work late, you would say, ‘I am concerned about your time keeping. You have been late two mornings this week. You know that we start at 08.00 and I need you here on time. What’s the problem?’ An opening like this sends a clear signal that you will not accept the pattern of late-coming.

Don’t accuse or exaggerate a problem by saying, ‘You’re always late!’ or ‘You never get this right!’ Stick to the facts and be specific. When you address a pattern of behavior in this way, there is every chance that you will solve the problem.

Sometimes however, there are broad issues that affect how people behave. If a person is in the wrong job, no amount of talking, training, or even discipline will get them to maintain the level of performance you require. Conversations about broad issues are often about commitment, personal or family problems, and relationships.

If a supplier is overstretched, the broad issues you need to discuss will cover their long-term ability to meet your needs and whether you need an additional or a different supplier. The decision you finally reach will also take into account your relationship with the supplier.

When you do not speak up about performance with which you are unhappy or behavior that drives you crazy, nothing changes except that you become more irritated, more frustrated and angrier. Until you speak up, the other person has no way of knowing how you feel and has no reason to change how they are behaving.

Although these conversations can sometimes be difficult, it is always best to speak up and get to the real problem. Then you can agree a solution and move on.

About the author

Maureen Collins has a B.Sc. degree in Psychology from Edinburgh University and over 25 years of management and consulting experience in the corporate world. In Straight Talk coaching and workshops she shows people how to deal with conversations that are difficult, sensitive and potentially disastrous for careers and relationships. She has two published books. Conversations at work that get results shows how to give feedback and improve performance. How to handle conversations that scare you takes the Straight Talk principles into families and personal relationships. Read more on