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How to Handle Difficult Conversations

You need to connect in order to work together toward a positive outcome – regardless of whether the outcome is an improvement in performance, a change in behavior, or relationship building.

Once you've invited the other person to dialog, you should share views and come to a common understanding.

To connect with your colleague, you need to use the appropriate communication style.

In particular, you need to use strength-focused communication, rather than weakness-focused communication:

  • Strength-focused communication

Strength-focused communication involves focusing on the other person's strengths, even in difficult situations.

This can be challenging because sometimes it's hard to understand a colleague's negative behavior. It can be even harder to show empathy and listen effectively. Although it may be challenging, using strength-focused communication is key to inviting dialog. It can help keep the other person engaged in working toward a solution.

  • Weakness-focused communication

Weakness-focused communication causes dialog to fail because one person is pointing out perceived weaknesses in the other. It often manifests as open criticism. Focusing on a person's weaknesses doesn't work because people tend to react negatively to criticism, even if the comments are justified.

Weakness-focused communication prevents you from connecting because your colleague will be less open to listening to what you have to say. So it's very unlikely to change your colleague's behavior.

Mutual Understanding
How to achieve a mutual understanding

Once you've invited the other person to dialog, you should share views and come to a common understanding.

It's important to not only share your views, but to allow the other person to share also. This exchange of views can be the difference between a positive and negative outcome.

There are several helpful guidelines to follow when sharing your views and perspectives: 


  • Prioritize – To reach a mutual understanding, it's important to say what's most important first. Your priorities should be stated explicitly and objectively. If stated in this way, your colleague should be open to joint problem-solving. If you tend to leave the main issue to the end of a meeting, you may leave others in a position of uncertainty and frustration that the conversation was one-sided.

  • Focus on facts – Starting a difficult conversation with the facts helps keep emotions in check and establish an understanding of the issue. Try to avoid getting too personal during the conversation. It's best to avoid attributing blame when you discuss the cause of a problem and the people involved. Blaming wastes unnecessary time on the problem rather than finding a solution.


  • Be flexible – It's important to be flexible in the conversation. Try to avoid presenting your views rigidly. Flexibility requires openness to hearing an alternative point of view. Listening is particularly important when it comes to being flexible. You can't progress a conversation in a more positive direction unless your colleague feels heard and understood.

  • Share relevant information – Share any relevant information or reasoning behind your views. It helps to have concrete examples to backup your views. Relevant information can include emotions, as unexpressed feelings can inhibit good communication. It's therefore important to identify and understand any emotional blockers that are contributing to an issue.


Even if you follow these guidelines, you could encounter some conversation blockers, such as emotions. Keeping the conversation objective can help you avoid this and engage with a focus on facts.



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