How to have a difficult conversation with your nanny

Perhaps you’ve experienced that sinking feeling. You’re not happy with how things are going.  You know you need to have THAT conversation.  But you don’t want to make the situation worse.  

How can you say what is needed to be said, and gain a positive result?

We asked Sue Ingram, an expert in tough talk, for some advice. Sue literally wrote the book on having difficult conversations (it’s called ‘Fire Well: How to fire staff so they thank you’), and she runs a training company which helps managers learn what to say when managing staff.

Here are her top tips.

1.    Get in the right mental zone

First off, realise you are not actually in a ‘fight’ or ‘argument’ situation.  You both want the same outcome: for the nanny to be happy and successful.  If the nanny is happy, and giving you the service you need, then you and the children will be happy too.  It is a win, win, win.

Also, keep an open mind.  Once the conversation starts you might learn something new that changes everything.  While you should prepare, you also need to be ready to drop the plan and change your opinion.

Be calm and objective.  It is important to appear confident and speak calmly, even if (especially if) things become emotional.  After all, you’re trying to figure out how everyone can be happy and successful in their job role.  Body language is important. (If you want to appear confident even when you don’t feel it, check out Amy Cuddy’s TED talk.)

2.    Identify the core problem

What is the thing that needs to change?  So often people talk about a symptom of the problem, rather than the problem itself. For example, you might feel like the issue is lateness, whereas the real source of the problem is that the nanny is no longer enjoying the job. You know you have identified the source when you can say, “If this thing improved, everything would be fine.”  

3.    Prepare your opening statement

Starting the conversation is the part most people struggle with. The trick is to prepare a statement that can be said in less than 2 minutes.  This will force you to be clear and concise.

This structure can help a lot:

(i)    I notice that… What has led you to think that something is wrong and you need to have a conversation?  Alternative wording here is ‘I am beginning to think …’, ‘I sense ….’, ‘I perceive …’  This framing allows you to voice your concerns but also remain open to new information.  Follow the opener up with reasons (evidence) why you think what you do, ‘And the reason I think this is …’.

(ii)    I feel.  People can dispute your thinking but they can not argue with how you feel.  However it has to be absolutely genuine.  How do you feel?  Hurt? Angry? Disappionted? Confused?  Stating how you feel also gives permission for the other person to talk about how they feel. Often this can be the answer to the whole issue.

(iii)   I want.  You can say ‘I want all of us to be happy living and working together’, ‘I want us to sit down and discuss this issue and find the solution’.  Or you could be very precise and state what you want in place of the problem ‘I want you to be up in the kitchen by 7.30 ready to prepare the kids’ breakfast’.

Think about how the nanny is likely to respond, and what you’ll say next.  If you have prepared a really strong, clear, short statement, it can be a strong thing to calmly repeat if they try to deflect you away from the topic.

4.    Tell them what they are doing right

You want to be truthful and honest. And you’ve just told them what is not going well.  To be balanced, you also need to tell them what they are doing well.  Think of what you truthfully appreciate about them and tell them.  ‘I have to be honest and say you are doing lots of things perfectly [examples] but this issue of … is important to me / a key part of your job, and therefore it needs to be improved.’

5. Follow up

 You have had the conversation – congratulations!  Now be sure to follow up.  If you see no effort being made, or they are struggling to do what you ask, you may need to hold another conversation. But if you see improvements, even small steps towards the ultimate goal, be sure to notice these and appreciate your nanny’s efforts.     

Sue Ingram (sue@conversewell.com) is CEO and founder of Converse Well.