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Tackling tough conversations

“I felt my blood pressure shoot up like a Fourth of July firework in a meeting the other day. You know how it goes. Someone says something that requires a double take. What do you mean? you ask, thinking it must be a misunderstanding. But no. The more you dig, the wider the chasm, until it’s obvious the two of you are so not on the same page you’re reading entirely different books. Suddenly, the conversation is no longer easy. Suddenly, the person across from you is an opponent, a raging bull let loose in your carefully constructed china shop of plans”.

(Excerpt from The First Step in Hard Conversations)

I’m sure you’ve all been in this situation at least once during your career. It’s a gut wrenching moment when you realise that you’re going to have an interaction that makes you highly uncomfortable. What’s your first reaction? Is it usually an emotional one? You feel your heart pounding and all you can think of is how this situation makes you feel. You feel hurt/angry/confused… and depending on whether you’re an introvert or an extrovert, you’re most likely showing it on the outside!

So what’s the best way to deal with difficult conversations, how do you get over the emotional hurdles in order to tackle the core of the issue? This article, The First Step in Hard Conversations, recommends that you ‘Start with Heart’. By examining your motives and having a clear picture of the outcome you want to achieve before jumping into conflict. Seeing the situation from the other person’s perspective and working with them to come to an agreeable outcome rather than selfishly seeing the argument only from your viewpoint.

In this article, 7 Ideas for Tackling Tough Conversations, the author outlines some helpful tips for delicate conversations:

  1. Picture the best in them
  2. Step into their shoes
  3. Get clear on your needs
  4. Avoid blaming them
  5. “Sandwich” the hard stuff with the positive
  6. Ask about their needs too
  7. Find a solution together

Like most advice on the subject of having difficult conversations, considering the other person and their feelings is key to getting the best outcome. If you have a one-sided view (your view), then it is unlikely you will get the resolution you desire. This article, The Five Mistakes We Make When Having a “Hard” Conversation, suggests that there is a third perspective in a difficult conversation, the ‘WE’.

“When we go into the conversation with only the ‘you’ and ‘me’ perspectives, it’s very easy to get caught up in the emotion. Instead, take the WE perspective. The balcony view. The big picture goal.

What are we both working towards? Do we even know, clearly?

Why is this important to us?

What will be different for us as a result of today?”

It is also important to bring some vulnerability into the conversation so that the other person is encouraged to open up rather than defend themselves. If you always appear to be strong in your argument, the person you’re speaking to will adopt this tone and respond in the same way.

This article, The Power of Vulnerability, explores the importance of vulnerability to resolve conflict:

  1. Let go of righteousness – it prevents you from seeing things from another point of view
  2. Own your feelings – admit how the situation has made you feel
  3. Admit what you did wrong
  4. Be honest – tell the truth that’s hard to tell
  5. Try something different – find the ‘we’
  6. Be willing to walk away – when the conversation isn’t serving either of you.

Before a difficult conversation you should practice. Try to plan how you are going to lead into the conversation and then leave it open to response from the other person. Don’t try to script the whole conversation. Inevitably it will not go in the linear fashion that have planned, and you need to be open to being flexible to the other person’s needs once they have been expressed.

If you’d like further advice on having difficult conversations then please get in touch with us at


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