What to Do When Managing Difficult Conversations

In any relationship, personal or business, there are times where we need to be managing difficult conversations. We explain some effective methods in this guide.

Sooner or later, you may face a situation when you wonder how to resolve conflicts correctly. In such cases, you can use the technique of nonviolent communication, which is ideal for asking, refusing, expressing your opinion, or insisting on your rights. In short, it allows you to sort out quickly and naturally in 95% of situations you meet in everyday life.

However, there are situations in which nonviolent communication doesn’t have the desired effect. And here we are talking about difficult dialogues. And if you want to learn how to conflict and manage hard conversations, read this article to the end.

Unpleasant conversations at work

Have you ever experienced a situation where you had to say something unpleasant to a colleague or subordinate? And here, it can be not only about the quality of work, prolonged sick leave, dismissal, demotion, or something related to working routine. But it can also be about even the most mundane things, like dirty cups in the office kitchen.

Suppose you know who has left them, but it can be tough to go to a colleague and express your displeasure directly. Sure, it’s pretty different when discussing an unpleasant topic with a friend or loved one. But, in this case, you have more hope that you’ll be able to find a common language and confidence that it won’t have a critical impact on your relationship.

When it comes to communication at work, however, things are not so simple. The discomfort and anxiety of the impending conversation increase many times over. But while thinking about it, why do we avoid such discussions and find them unpleasant?

First and foremost, because we are afraid of the following things:

  • Spoil existing relationships;
  • Make the situation worse;
  • Be verbally attacked;
  • Get rejected or feel humiliated;
  • To experience embarrassment or fear and still not get the desired results.

However, putting off important business decisions and conversations doesn’t make the problem go away. It’s also true for unpleasant discussions at work. A prolonged postponement results in a rapid worsening of the situation. Otherwise, you lose control over it.

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What is a difficult conversation?

Let’s note at once that the topic of conflict and difficult dialogues is most fully and thoroughly described in “Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes Are High”  by Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, Ron McMillan, and Al Switzler. In this book, you can find the complete instruction for a deeper dive into this topic if you now have some protracted conflict situation.

So now we’ll take a closer look at what constitutes difficult conversation:

You and your opponent have different opinions;

The stakes are very high. So much is at stake; your relationship can either get worse or destroyed. Otherwise, you won’t reach your goal;

Powerful negative emotions run high, so you almost lose your temper, common sense, and mind. As a result, competent conflict resolution is a complex deal.

In any relationship, there are three ways to behave in conflict situations:

Avoiding clarification;

Finding out the wrong way, namely, silence or violence;

Finding the right way, namely, sincere and respectful of the other person. It’s the way we’ll talk about further in our article.

Tips for managing difficult conversations

Any psychologist will tell you that building up emotions is not suitable for you. However, we often see nervous, exhausted, and unhappy employees in different companies. The cause of their condition is the inability to cope with intense stress about unpleasant conversations that were coming up or had already happened. From which, a few tips follow.

Master up your courage and do it

It’s doubtful that you’ll ever wake up and realise that today is the day you want to talk to a colleague about using deodorant or informing a subordinate that their mistakes won’t get them a bonus. The time may not be suitable for a difficult conversation, but there’s no good time. So, don’t wait until the situation gets worse and act now.

Prepare thoroughly for the conversation

Gather all the necessary facts, and be prepared to back up your remarks with specific figures or examples. Next, analyse the personality type of the interlocutor you need to talk to and morally prepare for their possible reactions. Finally, think of different solutions to existing problems so that, if necessary, offer them to the interlocutor if they’re confused.

And most importantly, when managing difficult conversations, be prepared for the fact that your opponent may react very violently, for example, they may start yelling and swearing. Unfortunately, that happens sometimes. But, your task in doing so is not to let yourself be drawn into the conflict and not allow your emotions to take over.

Speak directly and clearly

We often conduct unpleasant conversations super diplomatically and tactfully, wishing to sweeten the pill. It’s correct, of course, but only to a certain extent. To avoid misunderstandings and to repeat the same discussion in the future, you need to be as transparent as possible about the reason for the conversation and describe the problem at hand.

We’re not saying you should reprimand the person in a statutory voice. But what can happen when you try to soften the degree of the unpleasantness of the conversation too much? Your interlocutor may be confused or not understand what you tried to explain to them. And you won’t get anything out of them as a result.

Don’t lose sight of the goal

This tip relates to the previous one. Staying focused on the original topic and goal is essential during difficult conversations. By starting to distract from the main problem, it’s effortless to lose the conversation thread and provoke unnecessary and inappropriate conflict. Instead, make a plan for the conversation in advance, if necessary, and follow it. Ask if everything is clear to the interlocutor and paraphrase what they say. This way, you’ll know they understand you and show you hear them.

Shift the focus of the blame

How do we often react when our mistakes are pointed out or criticised? Go to the defence or engage in a counterattack. If possible, this reaction of the interlocutor should be avoided, or at least anticipate and know how to cope. A great way to do this is to take some of the blame for the other person. For example, say: “It’s my fault that I didn’t tell/explain/talk to you about it earlier. Maybe you didn’t know/understand what I wanted you to do”. Thus, it helps the person to calm down and not feel like a scapegoat.

What about emotional intelligence

The key to handling complex negotiations is communicative competence and emotional literacy. And you can’t improve them if you don’t have emotional intelligence. So what does it have to do with having unpleasant conversations? When you have developed these three skills, you gain the following benefits:

Know how to prepare for unpleasant conversations mentally;

  • Learn how to keep your emotions in check and know how to influence your interlocutor’s emotions;
  • Don’t let your emotions affect the course of the conversation or your attitude toward your opponent;
  • Easier to find an approach to any person, even in stressful situations, because you have developed empathy;
  • Recognise and are willing to take responsibility for the emotional damage you can cause during a difficult conversation;
  • Finally, you have the skills to make the conversation as constructive and beneficial to both sides as possible.
Instruction for conducting difficult conversations

Image: Pexels

Instruction for conducting difficult conversations

In the last paragraph of this article, we decided to give you clear instructions in table format for conducting crucial dialogues. It’s even simpler than a vacuum cleaner manual. And it will be easy to figure it out thanks to Howly experts, who provide online consultations on tech maintenance, finance, and beauty issues. It is to them we owe this guide.

During their work, they often have to deal with various clients, and some of them are not very patient, which leads to conflict situations. Given this, there was a need to develop a clear strategy for conducting complex dialogues and resolving conflicts.

And now, this instruction is also available to you, and you can apply it both at work and in personal relationships. So, how to conduct a crucial dialogue correctly?

First, ask yourself such questions

  • What do I want to accomplish for myself?
  • What do I want to accomplish for the opponent?
  • What do I want to accomplish for our relationship?

Keep track not only of the content of the dialogue but also of the circumstances of it

Learn to notice such points:

  • The moment when the conversation becomes difficult, look at the other person’s physical reactions, emotions, and behaviour;
  • Signs that indicate the person is no longer feeling safe (is silent or aggressive);
  • Your style of behaviour in stressful situations.

What do we need to do to restore safety?

Under threat can be:

  • Shared purpose (Does my conversation partner trust that I care about their goals and interests by having this conversation? Do they trust my motives?);
  • Mutual respect (Does my interlocutor trust that I respect them?).

What should we do if safety is lost?

  • Apologise;
  • Contrast: deny/affirm (I didn’t mean it; on the contrary);
  • Create a common purpose in the dialogue process:
  • Сommit to looking for a common purpose;
  • Recognise the strategy’s objective (why is it what you want?);
  • Invent a new common purpose;
  • Find new strategies.

How to stay in dialogue when you are angry, scared, or hurt?

Our interpretation of other people’s actions is the story we tell ourselves. It’s the cognitive processing of facts. So it would help to ask ourselves the following questions:

  • Why are they doing it?
  • How should I view it?
  • What should I do about it?

How do we turn these stories into constructive ones? Again, ask yourself three questions:

  • Am I trying to overlook my role in creating this problem?
  • Why would a reasonable, decent and rational person do it?
  • What can I do to move forward to achieve what I want?

How to speak persuasively but not destructively?

  • Share the facts;
  • Describe your story;
  • Ask the interlocutor for their perspective;
  • Tactfully avoid being categorical;
  • Persuade;
  • Invite views.

How to listen to your interlocutor well?

Be curious. It’s an exploratory process. It’s like looking around a room. When a person tells us something, we connect to it at the end of the story. And we need to know the beginning. So your actions in such a situation should be as follows:


Reflect (confront) when their words are at odds with their emotion (while showing ourselves to be calm and friendly);

Paraphrase the interlocutor’s words for better understanding:


Agree to expand the area of agreement. It’s usually the mistakes and miscalculations of others that we pay attention to, and 90% of the time, we usually all agree with each other;

After you’ve learned the opponent’s point of view, show them yours, and compare the two.

In Summary

Managing difficult conversations are an inevitable part of the work process. So how to develop the ability to conduct them constructively? First, you should learn to hear your interlocutor and correctly convey your position. That is, in the first place, you share the facts of what happened.

So it would help if you made it as straightforward as possible for the other person to tell them the story of what happened. Then you tell them your point of view and your vision of the situation. And after that, of course, you can also explain to them why you need it, why it is not your opinion, your needs, and the emotions you’re experiencing in this situation. And all of this you should do in a nonviolent way.

After that, while you’re telling it, you can ask the interlocutor’s opinion and view of the situation and invite them to speak out. The last thing worth doing is to agree with your opponent. Surprisingly, it is a fact that in 90% of the cases, the competing sides agree with each other; that is, people essentially want the same things.


About the Author

Christine Tomas is a tech expert, consultant, and aspiring writer. She writes for different news portals and thematic blogs that helps her stay at the heart of the programming and technology news. Such work gives her the opportunity to write articles on the most relevant topics today.

Team 6Q

Team 6Q