The Key to Difficult Conversations



One of the most challenging aspects of communication is having those ‘difficult conversations’.

Examples of those difficult conversations might be:

  • Critiquing a colleague’s work
  • Talking to a team member (or anyone) who isn’t keeping commitments
  • Terminating a relationship…personal or in business, can be an employee, vendor, etc.
  • Talking to a coworker (or family member) who is rebellious, disruptive  or otherwise problematic
  • Discussing performance issues with a staff member, or even a vendor
  • Saying no to someone
  • Discussing changes in compensation, benefits, role, responsibility…anything that won’t make them happy
  • There are a number of personal issues too, such as dealing with a family member with a substance abuse problem, a teenager breaking curfew, talking about money…
  • And the list goes on.

Shifting From Confrontation to Conversation

The first step is to shift our thinking about these interactions. We have to shift from seeing them as a confrontation to seeing them as conversations. We simply have to change our thinking. We often enter into these conversations assuming they will be confrontational, and guess what? Because we think they will be, they often are. So what if we approached them simply as conversations? How might the outcome be different?

Sounds like a good idea, but how can you make this happen?

  1. Think about what you want to say before the conversation starts. What is the goal of the conversation?
  2. Focus on what you want to accomplish and leave emotions (yours and theirs) out of the conversation and your thinking.
  3. Leave judgment and assumptions out of your thinking. Go into the conversation without any preconceived ideas or beliefs.
  4. Accept that this conversation will be difficult. If it wasn’t, you wouldn’t have a problem approaching the topic.

When The Conversation Turns Ugly

You’ve thought about difficult conversations in advance, know what you are going to say and how you want to handle it. The time arrives and you sit down with the other person and before you know it, the conversations turns into accusations, blame, defensiveness, and high emotions.

Many of us get frustrated when this happens and mentally throw in the towel. We think ‘we tried our best’ and it’s no longer our problem. But it is our problem. Because left unaddressed or unresolved, this situation only gets bigger and hairier and more complicated.

What do you do to get difficult conversations back on track? First, focus on your intentions. What was the reason you were having this conversation? Was it to share information, change behavior, identify consequences…what was your intention? Get back to this point and communicate it to the other party.

An example of this might be, “Tom, I can see that I upset you and my intention was to have a conversation about (insert topic). I realize this is a touchy subject (or unpleasant topic…) and my intention is to have an open, honest conversation so that (insert result you want). I’d like this to be as unemotional as possible so we can (resolve the issue, come to an understanding…). Do we need to take a short break before continuing this?”

It’s not going to work all the time AND it will help bring the conversation back to where it needs to be most of the time. It defuses the emotion. It lets the other person know your intentions and that you care enough to continue the conversation and respect how they feel.

Begin With The End In Mind

When you begin a difficult conversation with the end in mind, it is more likely that you get the result you want than if you simply jump into the conversation. It also helps you bring the conversation back on track when it goes awry.

Whenever emotions come into difficult conversations, people stop listening.

Until you can remove the emotions, or at least keep them in check, difficult conversations won’t end well. When talk gets ugly, focus on your intention, share your intention with the other person, and remember how the interaction unfolds has a lot to do with how you manage it.


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