I attended a leadership class not that long ago, and one of the topics discussed by people with a specialty in Human Resources, was “how to have difficult conversations with employees.” One of the concepts that became apparent to me was the fact that the conversations they were discussing, were all about rapport building and building a relationship with your employees (prior to ever having a difficult conversation with them). At the point you need to have a difficult conversation with them (about performance, policy violations, etc.), you have enough rapport built that you can be direct without using any language that is up for interpretation. These conversations begin with the “kindness sandwich” model.
To use this, you would start out identifying some positives the employee is doing; followed by the direct point of the conversation…and then recap the positives. You ultimately want to summarize the discussion at the end to reiterate that there was a serious point in the middle of the two praising points-and you then want to ask the employee how they would like to handle it. If they say “I don’t know,” you offer them a specified timeframe to come up with something—letting them know that you will meet with them again to discuss whatever solution they came up with.
An example may look like this:
“Kate, I wanted to discuss with you that I know you bring some great skills to your clinical work—like with the work you are doing with x. I loved how you used solid CBT skills when you were discussing her challenges with drinking. I did want to discuss the fact that when people begin their employment here, they are all given a copy of the dress code. There are a couple of things that I see on this dress code policy (I would have it in my hand), that do not coincide with some of the things I saw you wear yesterday. For example, the shoes you wore were open toed, and it specifically states that you cannot wear open toed shoes. I know that in the summer time, it gets hot—and sometimes it gets hot in here—but we still need to adhere to the closed-toe shoe policy for safety reasons. How does that sound?” (You give her time to respond here and speak through the response).
“I want to reiterate that I have no issues with any of your performance, again, how you have been working with x client has been fantastic. We just need to be following all of the policies here—with the dress code being a big one. I will be around this afternoon to discuss this further and touch base with you again on your thoughts regarding this.”
While the last point differs from what is seen frequently in counseling—what dawned on me was the extent that therapeutic training overlaps with employee relations. I mean it makes sense—as dealing with humans is dealing with humans—but it finally clicked for me—that you would deal with someone who is disruptive in a group therapy setting; (or someone that crosses a line in an individual session), in a similar way that you would an employee that is under-performing. In a group setting, instead of giving the patient a time limit as to how they will correct the issue, I may ask the group “what are some tools that have worked for you to keep from interrupting others in group?”(Or fill in the blank with whatever issue the client/patient is having in the group) to elicit feedback for their peer. I would then check back in with the client right then and ask which of those things they may want to try as part of their own set of tools. I would remind the group that everyone is in the group to work on things, and that while many issues overlap, sometimes things don’t, and it is important to allow every group member the grace to learn coping skills from the group about what whatever it is that they are working on.
I am sure there are many other parallels out there as well that can be used not only with clients and those in our personal life—but also with employees.
Summer Jeirles is a Licensed Professional Counselor and a Certified Advanced Alcohol and Drug Counselor with a background in addictions and co-occurring disorders in adults. She currently practices in Virginia.