Difficult Conversations

Difficult conversations can be tough for all of us – in fact difficult situations are tough. Period.

Some of us spend our lives from facing up to them, preferring to walk on by, not get upset and then face the consequences. Others charge at the difficult conversations like a bull in a china shop, disregarding feelings, stoking up emotions and causing emotional collateral as far as the eye can see. And others seem to face up to them without histrionics and handle them well.

Here are a few tips that will help you when you next have to face up to difficult conversations about tough issues. You can read more about how to do this in Entitled to Respect, How to be assertive and confident in the workplace.

Thinking about the other party

  • Listen. Make sure you get a clear understanding of the other person’s perspective
  • Respect differences in views and values. Acknowledge the differences and look for the common ground or goal that you both want to achieve.
  • Separate behaviour from personal dislike

What you say and how you say it

  • Use open questions to control the conversation, seek solutions and provide you with thinking time
  • Don’t defend. “Yes, but …” is likely to keep the difficulty going
  • Stick with facts
  • Use assertive “I” or “We” rather than potentially accusatory “You”
  • Be aware of body language – yours and theirs. Explore, approach the situation in different ways, stay open. Aggressive or submissive body language will limit your options. That applies over the telephone too – your posture will affect how you sound.
  • Pace the other person’s intensity, let them see and hear that you have understood what it’s like for them. That includes providing your version of a high energy response when you have someone irate yelling at you. Use some of their own ways of describing things. Pace, pace, pace – then lead them into finding solutions when they’ve vented.


Time & Place

  • Chose when, where and who is included in the conversation
  • If caught on an ad-hoc conversation– buy time: “Can I come back to you later?”, “Do you want a coffee?”, “I’d like to gather my thoughts on this before we speak”


Your focus

  • Be clear on what you want to achieve. Be responsible for yourself – is getting angry or taking offense going to help you get what you want? If not, explore how you can stay capable and creative in the face of difficult situations.
  • Decide on your strategy – avoid, accommodate, dictate, assert, compromise
  • Believe there’s a win-win. If you assume there isn’t, you won’t look for it and your belief will become reality.

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