Tire Dealer Survival Guide: How to Have Tough Conversations

May 21, 2024

Without a doubt, you will at some point — and more likely, multiple times — have a challenging conversation with an employee. 

A challenging conversation is one that’s usually held when expected behaviors or goals are not being met. This could be due to poor performance at doing an actual job or it could be about a glaring, negative behavior that is harming your business and the morale of your team. 

Common examples would be an employee being routinely late, an advisor who doesn’t sell road hazards or an employee who complains about the work delegated to him or her.

The other piece of a challenging conversation is the concern that it will get ugly if tempers flare. And there could be concerns about employees quitting. 

If you find yourself in a situation where a challenging conversation is needed, the worst thing you can do is nothing. Not only does the problem not get fixed, but employees will begin to take more liberties in not meeting expectations.

Let’s take a look at the structure of a challenging conversation. 

To begin, challenging conversations should always be a private manner, with no onlookers or people within earshot. Additionally, you should have documents and a pattern of behaviors, not just one-time events. These behaviors need to be seen by you firsthand. If you only have second-hand information, you can put an employee “on notice” that there might be a problem and you will be monitoring it — or just start looking for the pattern. 

With a pattern in hand, you can schedule a time to sit down with the employee. You could say, “Come to my office in 10 minutes” or schedule it for another day.  

Then you have to create your opening sentence. This is absolutely critical. The first sentence out of your mouth needs to be clear, concise and matter of fact. The sentence also needs to start with the word “I.” Never start a challenging conversation with “you,” as this can be interpreted as being accusatory and will raise the flames of defensiveness. You already know there will be a little heat. You don’t need to add gas to the fire.

The opening sentence also should have the structure of “I” plus “saw/heard” (or any other first-person verb like witnessed) plus the witnessed behavior. The second sentence could be a simple “Why?” or “Can you explain this to me?” This sets the entire tone of the conversation. It’s critical that this needs to be prepared in advance — even in writing in front of you when you begin the conversation.

Once alone in a private setting, make your opening statement and ask for an explanation. And here’s the hard part: take anything you think you might know about the situation and block it out. You need to not make any assumptions about the situation. This part of the conversation is about listening to their side of the story. Ask follow-up questions, ask for clarity and ask for evidence. Do not interrupt the person at all. Interrupting or providing your side of the story here shuts down the other person. They will begin to say less and worse, will just say whatever you want to hear to get out of the uncomfortable situation. This also should be the longest part of the conversation. Allow the employee to think, which means you need to be comfortable with silence. Even if the employee says something you know is likely a lie, stay quiet. Write it down if you want, but your role here is to understand their side of the story. 

Try to avoid closed-ended questions, as they are not good at collecting evidence. Moreso, three closed-ended questions in a row feels like an interrogation, which reduces communication. A closed-ended question is one that can be answered in one to three words. Closed-ended questions belong at the end of the conversation, when you are simply correcting information. An example would be, “So you called the customer at 3 p.m.?”

Try to use open-ended questions. Open-ended questions require an explanation. They cannot be answered in just a few words. If you ask a good open-ended sentence, but the employee tries to answer in just a few words, be silent. This silence tells the employee that his answer isn’t sufficient and he should keep talking. If the employee stalls, you can try what’s called a reflection, which is repeating back his own question. If the employee continues to stall, remind him of the importance of you collecting all the facts, so you can help solve the problem. Make it about the situation, not about them personally. 

When you are confident you have all the information about the situation and you fully understand the employee’s side, you now have to summarize what he said. This proves you listened, which will make him more likely to listen to you. Then find common ground. This establishes what beliefs or reasons you agree with.  

Starting with common ground is extremely important as it establishes that you aren’t diametrically opposed to one another. As a matter of fact, you should state exactly that. Sometimes you have to dig deep to find agreement, but it’s worth the effort as it makes the disagreement much easier to talk about. At this point, your very next sentence should be, “I disagree” and state where and why you disagree. 

This should create an exchange. If there is no dispute from the employee, you are getting an “easy yes,” which means the employee is uncomfortable enough to just say “yes” to get out of the discussion. Never accept an “easy yes” as there is no commitment behind the sentence and therefore it will not lead to change. If you get an "easy yes,” challenge the employee to explain why he hasn’t been engaging in the proper behavior already. 

If there is clear disagreement, stick to the facts. Do not use “fire” words like “lazy” or “stupid.” Fire words not only increase the emotional load of the conversation, but they are also judgmental. Laziness is not a behavior. It’s an accusation. Remember, the exchange is about clarifying facts one side thinks the other missed or misheard. It’s about connecting the employee’s motivation with his output. (“Tell me how not asking customers to get their alignment checked when buying tires is fair to them?”)  

The exchange should mostly be you asking more questions about what the employee is trying to justify. This should be lively and a little tense. Let’s face it — you have a genuine disagreement. But it shouldn’t be stressful. You’re trying to solve a problem with the employee, not just scold them. 

If you come to an agreement about moving forward, that’s a great outcome! It doesn’t always happen, but it can if your employee generally wants to be productive and not be in trouble. If you reach a stalemate, that’s OK. You can only talk about a topic for so long. So take a break. (“Listen, I’m glad I understand your side better. We’ve been talking for 30 minutes. Let’s sleep on where we are and come back to it tomorrow at 8 o’clock.”)

Now, whatever problem initiated the challenging conversation needs a plan — their plan, not yours. If you force a plan on a reluctant employee, it’s bound to fail. It’s their job. They need to own the plan and the outcome. Resist giving in to thinking, “This is taking too long, so I’m just going to tell them what to do.” If you think a few minutes waiting for an employee to formalize a plan is long, wait until you’re having the exact same conversation four times. You see, your plan might be the perfect solution, but if there is zero buy-in, a 100% good plan multiplied by zero is zero. If the employee’s plan is only half as good as yours, well, 50% multiplied by 100% commitment is better than zero. 

Finally, don’t get discouraged if your first few times trying this method doesn’t yield perfect results. This is a learned leadership skill that needs to be practiced. 

Changing employee behaviors takes time and patience. You have to spend time exploring the employee’s side of the issue, pull a solution out of them and then you need to be the leader. When you notice things are better, give specific, reinforcing feedback, such as, “I noticed your alignment sales are up this week. Good job and thank you for trying!” 

And support the employee. Always ask if the employee would like help. Maybe a little tweak to their schedule will help them concentrate on the job at hand? Maybe they could use a spiff to help bump up sales? Whatever you do, avoid offering solutions. That’s their job.

About the Author

Dennis McCarron

Dennis McCarron is a partner at Cardinal Brokers Inc., one of the leading brokers in the tire and automotive industry (www.cardinalbrokers.com.) To contact McCarron, email him at [email protected].