How will you open the conversation? When I ask managers, some suggest:

A) Small talk—weather, sports, fashion, that sort of thing. Probably not all at once:

“It’s freezing out. Brrr! Feels like Siberia. Winter’s almost here. But your sweater sure looks warm and comfy. Is that cashmere? I really love it. Would you ever consider selling it?”

B) Ask about the employee’s non-work life. Unless there are problems:

“How’s your family? Is that son of yours still in South America? He’s been there, what, 5 years now?  I forget why he’s there. Work? School? Prison?”

C) Get right down to business:

“Our purpose today is talk about your performance. And how to improve it. I’ve blocked off several hours. Remember: no one’s perfect.”

D) Acknowledge that you’re only doing this review because you have to:

“Well, I guess it’s that time of year again. Which reminds me, I’ve got to schedule a dental appointment before all my teeth fall out. But, hey, I can talk with you while I make a stupid dental appointment. Yeah, yeah, I know what you’re thinking. I just don’t pay enough attention, everyone says it, to my teeth. Would you mind if I flossed?”

The first 30 seconds set the tone, for better or worse.

“A” and “B” take you off topic.

“C” while on point—continuous improvement is everyone’s job—will trigger the employee. When you say, “Improve,” he’ll wonder, “Wait. What’s wrong with my performance???”

And “D,” the worst opening, says you don’t value the conversation. And your employee will hear, “Oh, you don’t value ME.”

What does a good opening do? 

1) Puts the other person at ease (assuming his or her performance is solid; otherwise, you may want some tension).

For example: “Melissa, I’ve really been looking forward to this conversation.”

That tells Melissa her performance is good to great, and that the conversation will be easy.

2) States a positive purpose.

“Our purpose is to talk about what’s working—you’ve had a good year, Melissa—and how we build on that going forward.”

Yes! We’re going forward—which includes opportunities for improvement.

3) Structures the conversation.

“I’d like to start with your perspective, Melissa, and then I’ll chime in as we go along.”

You intend to have a dialogue. The sooner Melissa talks, the better.

Tip: Your opening matters. Don’t memorize it; you don’t want to sound scripted or robotic. But you do want to sound focused and prepared.



Increase your impact, whether giving a presentation, talking with clients, or muttering to yourself.

—Virtual workshop—I’ve been leading Dynamic Speaking, a four-session course for small teams. We practice how to get heard, get remembered, and get results.

—Webinars—e.g. Bulletproof Feedback; Your Point?—Be Concise; The Power of Presence; Stories that Work; Resilience @ Work. . . Click here for all 12 programs.

—1-1 Coaching—I’ll help you with design (what to say) and/or delivery (how to say it with presence). Click here for details.

P.P.S. Or try my latest book: You’ve Got 8 Seconds: Communication Secrets for a Distracted World. Selected by a Fortune 50 company for their book club, translated into five languages, named one of the best biz books of the year by an obscure, but obviously brilliant, Canadian newspaper. Available in print , kindle, audio.

PAUL HELLMAN consults & speaks internationally on how to make your point—fast, focused, powerful. For more info: please call 508-879-0934, or email

To get these fast tips, click here.

© Copyright 2022 Paul Hellman. All rights reserved.