The Performance Meeting, Part I: Intentional Dialogue

By Jeffrey Harris, MFT, CEAP

“Bill, we need to talk…” Words like those are rarely met with openness and enthusiasm for change! A performance meeting is an opportunity for a manager to talk with an employee about perceived underperformance, inconsistent productivity, or problems with workplace conduct.
The desired outcome should be an alignment of purpose, where both parties hold the same interpretation of the steps necessary for the future success of the employee. Sounds simple and innocuous, right?

We all recognize that the performance meeting is usually met with dread by both parties, and they’re emotionally loaded. The manager is likely to be frustrated with the employee’s performance and the time spent away from more productive activities in order to hold the meeting. The employee, meanwhile, probably feels that the process is disciplinary and the criticism unfair or unwelcomed. 

Both parties are often defensive about which version of the story will ultimately prevail.
In the next few columns, I will share some ideas about consulting with a manager to develop the vocabulary and elements of an effective performance meeting. In part one of the series, I’d like to share some techniques managers may use for engaging the employee and reducing his/her defensiveness so that the associate might be open to receiving feedback.

Performance Meetings: A Brief Primer
To underscore the importance of starting a performance meeting with deeper listening, I’d like to share a quote from John Gaspari, LCSW CEAP, Executive Director of the USC Center for Work and Family Life, who says,

“If people were honest, they would tell you that they are not consistently and adequately heard, known, understood, and accepted.”

When consulting with managers, I first try to assure them that listening more deeply does not weaken their influence. A manager with mature supervisory skills realizes that influencing employee self-motivation is more effective than over-powering them with a display of authoritarianism.

Ask, Then Tell
If a manager is able to resist the impulse to blurt out concerns to the employee and replace impulsivity with a brief, curiosity-based interview, the manager will likely learn more about the motivation or meaning behind the employee’s underperformance or misconduct.
This simple technique is called Ask, Then Tell. The manager starts by asking several non-judgmental questions:

* How do you feel things are going?
* What can you tell me about the last month that might explain a drop in your productivity?
* Can you share with me your decision-making process that led you to deviate from our protocols?
* What do you recall from the conversation you had with your co-worker that led up to the complaint against you?

The Ask, Then Tell approach produces two beneficial outcomes. First, the employee will feel that he/she is really being heard. Second, the manager, in turn, may discover some new information about the situation. This allows the supervisor to modify the “Tell” response in a way that is more precise and welcoming to the employee.

Intentional Dialogue
Intentional dialogue is a powerful technique for disarming a defensive (and therefore close-minded) employee. According to an article on, “Intentional Dialogue involves conscious communication through which you clarify and confirm your understanding of the message, while actively developing respect for and acceptance of the other person’s perspective.”
Intentional Dialogue consists of three phases: Mirroring, Validating, and Empathizing.

After using Ask, Then Tell to begin the dialogue, the next step is Mirroring. This involves reflecting back to the employee what the manager has heard to seek clarification and have the employee feel that what he/she said is in fact accurate. Here’s an example of mirroring:
“So if I understand correctly, you thought that I had reduced the target amount of widgets you should produce in a month, which would explain your underproduction. Did I hear that accurately?”

To be most effective, use the mirroring step until the employee confirms the manager has heard correctly (Note that what is “correct” at this point is only the manager’s understanding of the employee’s report, not the accuracy of the manager’s original instruction).

Validating is the next step. This involves the manager making a statement, which acknowledges that the experience of the employee makes sense from his/her perspective. For this step to work, the manager must focus on maintaining the relationship with the employee rather than being factually correct at this moment. This does not mean that the manager has to agree with the employee, merely that the employee is reflecting an experience from his/her point of view. An example of validating sounds like this:
“I hear what you are saying. From your perspective, you thought I had eased up on your production quotas. It makes sense out of the numbers that I see on the monthly report.”

The final step is Empathizing. Empathy shows appreciation for the feelings of the other person. When the manager includes empathic statements in the conversation, he/she acknowledges what the employee is feeling and that those feelings make sense. An example of empathizing would be:
“I understand that you feel confused, and I can imagine why you find the new quotas to be frustrating.”

Depersonalization and positivity are two additional skill sets that can be useful for a manager in conducting an effective performance meeting (See my 4th Quarter 2015 and 1st Quarter 2017 columns, respectively). 
In my next column, I’ll share part two of an effective performance meeting, how to give constructive feedback that seeks manager-employee alignment. 

Let’s Keep the Discussion Going

The author invites readers to network about all types of effective managing consulting topics by connecting with him on LinkedIn ( and Twitter (@jeffharrisceap). 

Jeffrey Harris, MFT, CEAP, has provided management consulting to a wide variety of organizations throughout his 23-year career in employee assistance, including corporate, educational, government, and union organizations. The author also has extensive experience as a manager and executive coach, from which he draws insight for his consulting. Jeff currently serves as Program Manager of EAP & WorkLife at the University of Southern California.