How to Have “Difficult Conversations”

Difficult conversations are those where we need to raise an issue or concern with someone else and we think it will upset the other person. Often it involves addressing undesirable or challenging behaviour, for example poor performance or bullying. Because we anticipate an emotional response from our conversation partner, most people dread these sorts of conversation. However, in my experience they cannot be avoided, and if the situation is ignored the issue often gets worse and even more difficult to deal with. The following describes the approach I have to developed to help we have these difficult conversations:

  1. Remember it is YOU who has the concern or issue. The other person may be completely unaware of what you are experiencing – this may be the first time anyone has raised this issue or concern with them so it might be a shock.
  2. Don’t assume you know why they behave the way they do. If you do feel the need to try and work out why they behaved in a way that bothered you, then be generous in your assumptions. In my experience most issues arise through misunderstandings rather than through maliciousness.
  3. Before talking to them, be clear about the purpose of your conversation. The ONLY valid reason to raise a concern is to try and reach a mutual understanding/ solution to the problem you have. Using it to vent, make someone feel bad/guilty, or for revenge is not the purpose of a difficult conversation, and will not lead to a useful outcome (if fact it will usually make things worse).
  4. Your attitude sets the mood for the conversation. If your intent is genuine, then this will be reflected in your body language and the tone of your voice which will help maintain a calm and useful conversation. Always stay at the same eye level and use a calm, matter of fact tone
  5. Begin the conversation by recognising that you both may have different views on the issue and that the purpose of the conversation is to find a solution and not to blame anyone.
  6. Raise the issue using the specific example which is bothering you, and explain you concerns using “I statements” which explain how the issue affects you. e.g. “I find it difficult when you…”, or “I am concerned about ….”  NEVER use “You statements” e.g. “You make things difficult when you …” as this comes across as blaming them for the problem and is likely to make them defensive and less likely to respond.
  7. Listen to their perspective. There may be things you are not aware of.
  8. Discuss the issue or concern as if it is a problem which you can both solve together, not as something they need to fix themselves.
  9. Where you come to a solution, summarise what actions you have both agreed to take to address the concern.
  10. Do not lose your temper. If you feel the conversation is not making progress or find yourself getting frustrated or angry, then politely end the conversation. e.g. “It seems we are unable to reach a common understanding, so let’s take some time separately to think about this and meet again tomorrow…?
  11. Remember not all concerns or issues can be resolved, however, if we don’t try at all the chance of solving the is zero.


Skill comes with practice so don’t be afraid of having difficult conversations when they are necessary. The sequence of steps I have described above has helped me through many a difficult conversation and a derived from a range of sources. I can highly recommend the following resources for further reading on how to develop the skills to have difficult conversations.


Other Resources

We need to talk – Judy Ringer    an excellent article with an associated video and pdf checklist.

If you have access to there are several good courses covering “difficult conversations”


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