How to approach difficult conversations

How to approach difficult conversations at work

Challenging development conversations can be anything difficult to talk about e.g. performance reviews, asking for a raise, ending a relationship or complaining to a neighbour about their noisy dog. We are often reluctant to begin these challenging conversations as we fear the consequences.

Often a lot is left unsaid when difficult conversations occur – we think and feel a lot more than we actually say.


How to approach a difficult conversation. Underlying each difficult conversation are three contributing elements:

  • Our Facts – Often there is some disagreement over what actually happened
  • Our feelings – Appropriately expressing our feelings
  • Our Identity – Managing how we see ourselves

The key to having effective, Emotionally Intelligent conversations is to manage these contributing elements, and to turn difficult conversations into learning conversations. So this is how to approach a difficult conversation.

Our Facts

Our first mistake is often to assume we are dealing with facts, and that the facts we have are right. Even when we agree on the basic facts, we often disagree on their interpretation and intent, i.e. what the facts mean and which elements are important. In order to have a meaningful, Emotionally Intelligent conversation we must learn to shift from certainty about our own views, towards curiosity about the other’s view of the situation. We also need to try and understand why they interpret the situation in the way they do and what their intentions really are.

It is easy to assume we know what their intentions are based on the actions we see. These impressions are often a result of how we feel; if we feel hurt then they must have meant to hurt us. To avoid misjudging their intent we need to ask what it was. Remain open-minded about your own interpretation of their intent. Avoid the mistake by acknowledging the other’s feelings, and by considering the possibility of your own complex motives.

Additionally we need to avoid assigning blame. Focusing on blame is a bad idea as it blinds us to what is really causing the problem. It limits our ability to do anything meaningful to correct the error. Acknowledging our own contributions can help shift us, and the other party away from blame. Contributing to a situation does not imply being to blame for that situation. Sometimes we contribute to a problematic situation by avoiding dealing with it or by being unapproachable. reality is coloured by perceptions

Our Feelings

These conversations are difficult as feelings are involved. Expressing emotion can be risky if not done appropriately e.g. telling a client to shut up when he isn’t listening is probably a career limiting move. Though we may want to ignore our emotions when dealing with these conversations, unexpressed feelings can leak back into the conversation via our tone and body language. This can make the conflict worse and reduce both parties’ ability to be a good listener. The key is to identify and understand our feelings, manage them and share them clearly.

It is not always easy to know what we are feeling. Sometimes simple emotional labels (happy, sad, afraid) can mask complex bundles of feeling. It becomes easy to translate our unexamined feelings into judgments and characterisations about the other party. Our need to blame often indicates unexpressed emotions. The first step is to acknowledge that our feelings (and the other parties’ feelings) are an integral part of the situation, even when they seem rather irrational. The second step is to acknowledge the other parties’ feelings.tunnel vision and difficult conversations

Our Identity

How we handle these difficult conversation can either reinforce our identity or diminish it. Some conversations are more difficult because they threaten or challenge our sense of who we are, our identity. A difficult conversation may challenge our integrity, competency, honesty or value. A challenge to our identity can make us more vulnerable, make us feel less loveable or even worthless. Managing our internal identity requires becoming aware of the issues that are most important to how we see ourselves, our value system and then learning how to adapt them in healthy ways. The more easily we can admit our mistakes, own our complex intentions and what we contribute to the problem, the more balanced we will feel during the conversation – and the more likely it is go well.identity threat difficult conversations

Sometimes difficult issues should be raised, but sometimes it is better to let them go 3 contributing elements underlying difficult conversations Infographic

There are no simple rules for deciding which to let go and which to pursue, but by considering the implications of these three elements we can gain a clearer understanding of the situation, and as such a better basis for deciding.


How to approach difficult conversations at work

Use these tips to approach difficult conversations with more confidence at work or at home.

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Richard Riche

Change Communication and Employee Engagement specialist at One Clear Message Consulting
Richard specialises in helping you build real human communication skills. Employee Engagement / Experience, Emotional Intelligence skills, building high performance teams and a great place you want to work. TED style speaking and presentation skills. Training, consulting and coaching.
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