How to Manage Difficult Conversations

How do you tell a coworker who also happens to be a friend that his performance is not up to the mark? Do you straight away go and say this to his face and pull off the band-aid at once, or do you start dropping hints and then gradually share your opinions, or do you keep avoiding the conversation?

According to a study done by a workplace resource company, Bravely, 70% of employees are avoiding difficult conversations at work.

And why is that? Because most of us are either not aware of the importance of having those difficult conversations or of the correct way to approach them.

Importance of Managing Difficult Conversations

Importance of Managing Difficult Conversations

Conflict Resolution

The need to have difficult conversations often arises from conflicts or disagreements. Effectively managing these discussions can lead to resolution, fostering a better understanding of differing perspectives and finding common ground.

Relationship Preservation:

Many times, we see relationships deteriorating because people do not have the courage to open up and discuss what’s bugging them. Even if done subtly or subconsciously, avoiding difficult conversations creates toxicity, resentment, and emotional baggage over months and years. That’s why one needs to respectfully hash out concerns to prevent wounds from deepening and relationships from eroding over time.

Clarity and Understanding:

When differences of opinion emerge on significant matters, people start walking on eggshells instead of talking issues through. This leads to miscommunication and prevents the misunderstanding from getting cleared. By openly discussing concerns, expectations, or grievances, we can better understand each other’s perspectives.

Personal and Professional Growth:

Learning to constructively discuss disagreements builds our emotional resilience, empathy, and equanimity – essential ingredients for both personal and professional growth.

Problem-Solving and Innovation:

Addressing challenges head-on encourages problem-solving and innovation. It allows for brainstorming solutions, exploring new ideas, and fostering creativity in finding mutually beneficial outcomes.

Organisational Health:

Within a professional setting, managing difficult conversations contributes to a healthier organisational culture. It cultivates a culture of open communication, transparency, and trust among team members, which is essential for a positive work environment.

Avoidance of Escalation:

Ignoring or avoiding difficult conversations often leads to issues festering and escalating. Addressing concerns early on helps prevent minor issues from snowballing into larger, more challenging problems that are harder to resolve.

Decision-Making and Progress:

Difficult conversations can sometimes involve making tough decisions. Managing these discussions ensures that decisions are made thoughtfully, based on open dialogue and consideration of multiple perspectives, leading to progress and forward movement.

In essence, effective management of difficult conversations fosters healthier relationships, promotes growth, aids in conflict resolution, and contributes to a positive and productive environment, both personally and professionally.

Strategies for managing Difficult Conversations

Strategies for Managing Difficult Conversations

Don’t Avoid It

Procrastination does nothing but exacerbate the problems. It’s better to speak up and discuss the problem before it gets too late; this is key to preventing escalation down the line. It also builds our own confidence in handling uncomfortable situations.

Prepare by Reflecting on the Key Message You Want to Convey

Before saying something to anybody, you should know what you want to talk about, so clarify your thoughts beforehand. Knowing what you want to communicate ensures a more coherent and effective conversation.

Be Assertive

Being assertive is crucial as it lets you express your thoughts, concerns, and boundaries clearly and confidently while also respecting the perspectives of others. Assertiveness ensures that one’s voice is heard without being overly aggressive or passive, striking a balance.

Focus on Facts and Your Key Objective

When we are uncomfortable, we tend to blabber or try to talk about something or the other instead of coming straight to the point. That’s a mistake. One should stick to relevant facts and avoid drifting from the primary purpose of the conversation to maintain focus and clarity.

Choose an Appropriate Setting

Deliberately choosing the right environment – private, quiet, free of distractions – sets the tone for open and thoughtful dialogue by making people feel at ease. If you are able to approach the other person at the right place and at the right time, half the battle is already won.

Stay Calm and Composed

As difficult conversations include topics and issues one might be sensitive about, it’s common to see emotions getting the best of people, and they either break down or have aggressive outbursts during such conversations. So you need to keep your emotions in check; yes, it is easier said than done but very critical. As emotions heighten, reasoning ability reduces. Staying grounded enables logical problem-solving.

Be Empathetic

Having a conversation is not just about saying all that you’ve got; its also about listening to the other person. Listening to the other person’s perspective, Showing genuine interest in their perspective, and trying to understand it fosters a sense of mutual respect and understanding.

Focus on Interests, Not Positions

This is one of the major principles Roger Fisher and William Ury put forward in their book Getting To Yes. This approach highlights the importance of digging deeper into underlying interests or concerns rather than solely focusing on opposing stances. This helps uncover common ground and potential solutions.

Explore Options Together

Rather than focusing on disagreements and problems, we should work together to discuss different perspectives, explore more options and try to come up with a solution. Encouraging joint problem-solving fosters cooperation and a sense of shared responsibility.

Close on a Constructive Note

End the conversation by summarising key points, agreements, or action steps. In case there are any underlying ambiguities, clear them out. Ensure both parties feel heard and understood.

Follow Up to Prevent Fallout

While the point of having difficult conversations is to resolve whatever issues and misunderstandings there are and leave with no hard feelings, this isn’t always the case. At times, people need time to cool down and think. That’s why it becomes necessary to follow up to reaffirm commitments, check progress, or address any lingering concerns. This proactive approach helps prevent further issues from arising.



How can I prepare for a difficult conversation?

Preparing for a difficult conversation involves several key steps to ensure a constructive and effective dialogue. Begin by clarifying your objectives and what you hope to achieve from the conversation. Reflect on the specific points or concerns you need to address, ensuring they’re clear and focused. Consider the other person’s perspective and potential reactions to anticipate their responses. Lastly, create a conducive environment for the conversation, choosing an appropriate setting and time to ensure privacy and minimal distractions. This preparation helps you approach the discussion with clarity, composure, and a constructive mindset.

What are some strategies for staying calm during a challenging discussion?

Staying calm during a challenging discussion involves several strategies. Firstly, focus on deep breathing or mindfulness techniques to maintain composure and regulate emotions. Actively listen to the other person’s perspective without interrupting, allowing a moment to process before responding. If emotions start to escalate, take a brief pause or ask for a break to collect thoughts. It’s essential to reframe the situation, reminding oneself that the goal is understanding and resolution rather than winning the argument. Anchoring on facts and the conversation’s objective helps stay centred and composed, fostering a more productive dialogue.

Are there common mistakes to avoid during difficult conversations?

Certainly, several common mistakes can hinder the effectiveness of difficult conversations. Avoiding or delaying these discussions is a significant error, as it allows issues to fester and escalate. Being overly aggressive or confrontational can worsen tensions and hinder constructive dialogue. Similarly, being too passive and avoiding asserting one’s thoughts or feelings can lead to unaddressed concerns. Interrupting the other person, not actively listening, or getting defensive are additional pitfalls that hinder effective communication. Relying on assumptions or generalisations rather than focusing on specific instances or facts also undermines the discussion’s clarity and resolution. Lastly, allowing emotions to overpower the conversation without regaining composure can derail progress and prevent finding mutually agreeable solutions.

How can difficult conversations positively impact relationships and personal growth?

Difficult conversations, when navigated thoughtfully, can have positive impacts on relationships and personal growth. They foster honesty and transparency, building trust and understanding between individuals. Addressing conflicts or concerns openly demonstrates respect and commitment to the relationship’s well-being, ultimately strengthening the bond. Additionally, such conversations encourage self-reflection, enhancing emotional intelligence and communication skills. They offer opportunities for personal growth by challenging individuals to manage emotions, practice empathy, and find constructive solutions. Learning to navigate difficult conversations effectively cultivates resilience, adaptability, and a deeper understanding of oneself and others, contributing to overall personal and relational development.

Recommended Reading:

Speak Clearly: Overcome Barriers to Effective Communication

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