Tackling Tough Talks

Managing Tough Talks

Difficult conversations don’t have to be difficult

Whether you’re a CEO, a gardener or good friend, at some point you will have to have a difficult discussion. Don’t panic! The most risk-averse people can tackle tough talks with a little coaching. The following tips will provide some helpful hints for handling challenging conversations.


Don’t let things fester.
Difficult messages won’t get easier if you avoid the discussion. In fact, waiting can make things worse and grow hurt feelings into bitterness. Identify what is making the situation difficult; the issue, the person or the situation. Be proactive by gathering the facts, plan what you want to say and set a time to meet. Try writing a letter to the person explaining your concerns. Don’t send it, the letter is just to help you organize your thoughts.


Choose an appropriate time and place.
Choose a time when you and the other person will not be rushed. Make sure you have privacy. While its important that you don’t feel hurried, the conversation should also have an agreed upon end time. Set thirty minutes to an hour aside. If the conversation needs to continue, schedule another time. This will ensure that you don’t let things slide.


Signal that you want a constructive discussion.
Use neutral body language, no arms crossed over your chest or tapping a foot. A pleasant or neutral look on your face coupled with a calm voice and moderate volume will help to set the stage. Begin by thanking the other person with a statement such as, “Thanks for taking the time
to meet with me.”

Here are some potential opening lines:

“I’d like to talk to you about __ but first I’d like your point of view.”
“I need your help with something. Can we talk about it soon?”
“I have something to discuss with you that I think will help us work together more
“I think we have different perceptions about __ and I’d like to hear your thinking on it”

Let them speak.

If you’ve been thinking about the conversation a lot, you may rush to get your thoughts off your chest. This can lead to a very one-sided conversation. Instead, ask the other person a question to get them talking. Try not to interrupt. Build bridges by emphasizing what you agree on and the positive aspects of your relationship.


Listen actively.
Great listeners don’t just sit silently. They send cues that let the speaker know they have been heard. Let the person know you are engaged by summarizing what they have said. For example, before summarizing, say something like this, “Let me make sure I understand you properly.”

Acknowledge the other person’s point of view, this doesn’t necessarily mean agreement. In addition to active listening, engage in active observation. A person’s attitude is often conveyed through their body language. Are they leaning away from you, fidgeting or showing other signs of discomfort?

Try to pre-empt objections and blame.

Use ‘and’ phrases to do this. For example, ‘and I know you worked all weekend’ ‘and I know you are new to the organization’ ‘and I know I could have been more specific in my directions to you.’

Avoid being judgmental.

Focus on facts and observed behaviours, not opinions. One technique to minimize direct confrontation is to use “I-messages” instead of “you-messages” (e.g. “I was disappointed when you missed work again.”).

Manage your emotions.

Anger makes a difficult situation worse and is obviously a barrier to effective communication. Stay calm, respond rather than react. Be prepared for bad reactions – anticipate them and be emotionally ready.


Be solution oriented.

Have a solution in mind before starting, one that is mutually beneficial. Sum up the discussion and agree upon the next steps before leaving.

Perhaps one of the most difficult things about difficult conversations is acknowledging when you are wrong. We all take pride in our opinions and most people strive to do the right thing. When you find yourself in the wrong, it can be hard to acknowledge, but acknowledging it can be a powerful action, particularly as a leader. When you admit that you are wrong, it tells people who report to you that they can own up to mistakes too. It tells colleagues that they can trust you to be fair and it tells bosses that if you don’t back down from an issue, it isn’t because of pride.