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The fundamentals of handling difficult conversations

Have you ever had a difficult conversation go badly? Or perhaps a more relevant question is have you ever had a difficult conversation go well? I have had both outcomes. My latest difficult conversation reinforced that there are some fundamentals that really turn a difficult conversation around. It doesn’t mean that a difficult conversation suddenly becomes easy, but that you can have a respectful exchange of ideas, where no one gets hurt.


Address four fundamentals and you can create something with your peer that becomes a stepping stone to greater working together and builds a bridge to better teamwork.


Keep in mind what we have said previously: that difficult conversations are times of heightened emotions, when ‘fight or flight’ leads to a heady combination of issues. What works in such times is to have a strategy, stick to a plan or follow a set of points – in other words to use your thinking, cortical brain, to rise above the fight or flight tendency. It is possible and it does work.


These four fundamentals work best used in a step-by-step way. If you are the speaker, you want to address each of these points, in order. If you are the listener, you want to ask clarifying questions until you have ‘filled in the blanks’ for each of these points.



What you observed or what they observed. If you are the teller, clarify what you observed, objectively. Keep your observations free of blaming, judgmental statements like “You slammed my reputation.” If an incident involved raised voices, talk about loud voices not “shouting and screaming”. The point is to try to keep emotion out of it at this stage. It is easy to agree on objective facts. You walked into the room. They walked out. Those facts are indisputable. Even “I heard you say ‘x,y and z’ “ is much better than “your tone was incredibly rude”. In my difficult conversation today I was the listener, so I asked “Can I clarify, when you heard that the music was quite loud… “ and then I got to part 2.



You kept emotion out of the last step but now you get to bring it in. If you are the teller, choose a word to describe the emotion you felt. If you are the listener, ask questions to clarify how the other person felt. This can be the point when blame creeps in, like “I felt isolated” or “I felt overlooked” or “I felt mistreated”- those words are much more about blaming than they are about owning. Owning is what keeps the conversation open and builds bridges. Owning would say “I felt lonely” or “I felt disappointed” or “I felt unsure and vulnerable.” In my difficult conversation today I said “I feel confused and unsure”. Feelings, like the facts above, are indisputable – it is impossible to argue with the reality in someone else’s world, especially when it is fully owned by them, without blaming.



Now that the facts are on the table, and the feelings, this is sometimes enough clarity to be able to move forward. However it never hurts to explain the deeper truth, if you are the teller, and to explore the deeper truth, if you are the listener. Feelings come from somewhere, they are connected with what we value, want and need in our lives. Someone feeling ‘lonely’ needs company. Someone feeling disappointed wanted things to turn out differently. Someone feeling unsure needs more information. Ask questions like “Is that because you want z, have I got that right?” or “I’m guessing that’s important to you because you would like y, is that right? “and don’t assume that you know exactly what the person values. You want to get to the need behind the feeling. When you do, that’s when real understanding happens.



This is the point when you make a request, if you’re the speaker, or ask for a request to be made of you, if you are the listener. In my conversation today, the first few steps had clarified the situation so much that the request I needed to make was unnecessary – my peer suggested it before I had the chance. Make sure that your request is clear or that you clearly understand what is being requested of you. Too often we assume that it the request is obvious, but this just becomes another point of misunderstanding. Think of a parent asking their child to clean their room – it often turns out that ‘clean’ and ‘clean’ are two different things. Ask clarifying questions, restate what you heard and ask “is that right?” When requests are clear, strong bridges are built as people have an opportunity to respect what really matters.


If you use these four fundamentals, you might find yourself in the situation I was in, where a difficult conversation turned into one where I received a thank you note for taking the time to chat. It is amazing how powerful it is to be understood and to understand. This is what real teamwork is about.



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