Tackling Difficult Conversations

We all avoid conflict.


Let me admit up front that I’m a big conflict avoider. Oh, and a people pleaser. This means, among other things, that I’ll do lots of mental and verbal gymnastics to stay away from confronting people or situations that are difficult, challenging or fraught. Over the years, with the help of a great coach (!) and a lot of manufactured courage, I’ve gotten much better at not only engaging in these conversations but even welcoming them. Why? Because they are the strongest and surest bridge to having healthy relationships, getting what you really want and need, and developing into the kind of person who speaks and behaves with integrity.

If I can do it, anyone can. Truly. There are a couple of techniques that help demystify and de-intensify the process that work every time – as long as everyone is being honest and respectful.

Demystify & De-Intensify

First, thoughtfully consider what you want to achieve by the end of the conversation. Not merely getting across your points, but how you and the other person will feel and behave afterward. We get so focused on what we must say (especially if we're sure we’ve been wronged!) that we argue our case as if in court. By shifting your preparation to envisioning and planning for the outcome you seek – the one that goes beyond the speaking to actually being heard, from “getting that off my chest” to building a stronger bond and common purpose – you will achieve a much better result. 

I recently coached a client on using this approach for a dreaded annual performance review, where we focused less on cataloging her accomplishments and more on the partnership she wants to build with her boss. She texted me the next day to say the review went incredibly well. She was able to talk about her work and her dreams for her job, and it ended with a huge hug.  Not bad!

Active Listening

Second, remind yourself that it’s better to listen with an intent to learn rather than to respond.  Make it a point to truly hear what is being said, and request the same. This is often bolstered by practicing mirroring, a simple process in which each person has the chance to say his/her piece, uninterrupted or corrected. The other person then says exactly what he/she heard – again with no corrections. Only after each party has spoken and had their words mirrored back to them do you address any points that need to be clarified. There is a lot of “I” language ( I feel, I think, or I sense) and less “you” stuff (you did this, you said that, or you promised).  


Did You Know...

People spend between 70-80% of their day engaged in some form of communication, and about 45% of their time is devoted to listening.
- University of Missouri

Most people usually only remember about 17-25% of the things they listen to.
- International Listening Association

I recently had the chance to facilitate a session using this technique with great success for co-founders of an initiative. They each told their version of the origin story of the partnership, honestly described the role they really wanted to play, and illustrated what success looked like to them. The upshot is that by listening to get clarity, not to command or challenge, we are able to forge stronger bonds, build trust, and achieve sustainable results. 

Set Common Goals

Third, there is a goal orientation, and it’s stated up front. Perhaps the goal is to offer an apology or clear up a misunderstanding. Maybe it’s to get aligned on how to approach a challenging situation or acknowledge a mistake. Maybe you’ve seen or heard something that concerns you and you want to get to the bottom of the matter to determine the right course of action. When you make everyone aware that the purpose lies outside of blame, it is much easier to work through the issue. 


Recently, my client had to deal with a particularly uncomfortable situation related to a team member's after-hours behavior that risked the reputation of the organization. We gathered the leadership team and opened the dialogue by sharing our goal of helping everyone be the very best manager they could be. Then we talked about the stories being told, heard all perspectives on the truth, and came up with a plan to support each individual and the group. Lastly, we put in place a plan for accountability.

None of these steps is rocket science. They do require some courage, an understanding that being right is less important than being heard, a frank assessment of your responsibility and your desires, and a willingness to remain honest and open. If I can develop this muscle, anyone can.  Once you do, you’ll feel like your own action hero[ine]!