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Association Teams: How to Have Difficult Conversations

Association Teams: How to Have Difficult Conversations

Several years back, I was an association president, and we had a very difficult volunteer. Long story short, we had to fire this individual from their volunteer role. It was one of the hardest conversations I have ever had to have as an association leader. Since then, I have done much reading and practice in reaching and navigating difficult conversations -- and frankly, I would have loved to have read the following those few years back...

Here is the truth (not alternative facts -- lol) when you work with people you will not always see eye-to-eye with. You will not always get along, and they will not always do what you feel they are supposed to. It is just human nature.

According to writer Alanah Throop from www.rypple.com, there are a bunch of things we can do as association leaders to help soften an awkward conversation. They are:

  • ASAP
  • Location
  • Soft Landing
  • K.I.S.S.
  • Nix Negative
  • Agree
  • Shhhh...
  • High Five
  • Notes
  • Follow up

Okay, so the difficult conversation needs to happen. A team member is inappropriately dressed for work, not complying with the "no scents" policy, or any one of a plethora of things that can happen. It seems situations become as unique as we are as humans.



You might put off doing the laundry, but you can never put off a difficult conversation.

Make sure that you have checked with HR that you are within the union or legislative right in having the talk -- you may need a representative present or something else. Either way, having the conversation and nipping the issue in the bud will garner respect from your staff. You will represent yourself as a leader who is interested in getting things right -- and right now.



Take the time to have the conversation in private -- no one wants others to overhear the conversation. Take a softer, shoulder-to-shoulder approach, not nose-to-nose. Pull two chairs to the same side of the desk to talk -- it is less confrontational.


Soft Landing

Open the conversation with a milder statement that allows the listener a chance to brace and prepare for the incoming information. Say something like, "Jane, I have something that is concerning me, and I would like to talk to you about it."



Keep It Simple Supervisor.

Be as straightforward and time efficient as possible. Take the time to get right to the heart of the issue and be sure to connect the issue with standards of how things are done successfully within the organization.


Nix Negative

Remember that people remember and understand things phrased in a positive manner better than a negative. So say "It would be helpful if, when you are finished with the lift machine, that you place it back in the store room" instead of "What are you stupid? You know better than to leave the lift in the hall. Put it away."



When people agree they tend to comply. Set a date/time to check in on the new behavior you have agreed will resolve the issue at hand. Working together helps to get behavior changed more quickly. Always try to reach an agreement that allows you to later make a suggestion without it being confrontational.



Make the difficult part just about the three of you: 1) You, 2) staff, and 3) the issue. Stick to the points at hand. Don't bring in what "other staff" are saying -- this only serves to create social stress and embarrassment around the issue.


High Five

Thank the co-worker/volunteer after the conversation is over. Acknowledge that having an awkward conversation is not fun. Tell them that you have high expectations of them, based on what you have seen from them before, and express your hopes that they will achieve them. Then take the time to watch for them taking action on the behavior, and give them kudos for doing great work.



Document your conversation, its outcomes, and expectations once it is over. You might need to record it with HR (read: legal stuff). Moreover, the notes will help you track changes and improvements. They say what is measured improves.


Follow Up

Have weekly mentoring and coaching sessions to track and encourage improvement. Regular feedback and support from supervisors and managers make all the difference in ensuring that backsliding does not occur. Plus, if you are in regular contact, clarification is just a question away.



Tyler Hayden is a keynote speaker, team designer and author for over 20 years. Look for his new do-it-yourself team building activity store www.teammover.com or invite him to speak at your association by visiting him at www.tylerhayden.com.




Team Building: Leader's Pack Essential Tools for Association Leadership

Tyler Hayden hosts an insightful and interactive session. Learn how to effectively build sustainable, engaged association leaders to deliver long term benefits to them and your organization.



Associations, Leadership, Volunteers, Staff


Op-Ed, Guest Contributor



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