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How to Handle Difficult Conversations

There are many benefits from learning how to have a difficult conversation.


If you know the steps to take to make progress during the conversation and develop an appropriate communication style, the conversation is likely to become a learning experience for both parties.

To achieve a positive resolution you should guide the dialog through 5 steps.

Step 1

Open with an agenda

Having an agenda has two clear purposes. It helps you clearly plan the meeting in advance, and it also helps you keep the meeting on track. So if you find the conversation going off on a tangent, you can use the agenda to refocus the conversation.


A good agenda outlines the problem to be discussed and establishes a time to hear your colleague's views. It also allows you time to present your views, and invites you and the colleague to take a collaborative approach to resolving the issue. 

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Steps to having a difficult conversation

Step 2

Invite dialog

You want to create an atmosphere that invites dialog. At this stage, it's important to connect with the other person.

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Step 3

Share views and perspectives

You need to share your views with a focus on the facts, and not present your perspective as a "one and only"  stance. It's important for you to hear your colleague's views and perspectives, so ask for them.


Then you should listen carefully and try to avoid judging your colleague. And be aware of your own assumptions, the most basic of which is that you're right and your colleague is wrong.

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Step 4

Look for a mutual understanding

It's important that both parties are involved in the resolution process. Rather than dictate the solution, it's a good idea to first invite your colleague to propose potential solutions.

If your colleague makes a contribution to the solution, it's easier to reach a mutual understanding.

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Step 5

Design an action plan

An action plan formally clarifies the understanding that's been reached by both parties. It also identifies "next steps," and who's responsible for each activity.


The action plan should be written down and agreed on by both parties. A clear action plan helps avoid misunderstandings about who's responsible for each task. There should also be agreement on the timelines associated with the plan.

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Approaching difficult conversations

You should be in the right mindset to approach the conversation. Ideally, you'll approach the conversation with an open mind, and remain open-minded for the entire conversation. To achieve this, you should steer the conversation away from who's right or wrong, and avoid attributing blame and thinking competitively – that is, you shouldn't think you have to "win" the conversation.

You should also approach the conversation with curiosity and view the situation as an opportunity to learn. If you take a collaborative approach, you'll be more likely to avoid blaming the other person or thinking competitively. Being willing to engage in a collaborative way allows you to take time to understand the situation from all perspectives.

Empathy toward your colleague will also help progress the conversation positively. Considering your colleague's emotional state and feelings will demonstrate respect.

When approaching the conversation with this frame of mind, you help preserve the dignity of your colleague. For a successful outcome to the meeting, this frame of mind must prevail throughout the entire conversation.

Your communication style should convey that you have a positive mindset. An appropriate communication style involves a number of characteristics:

Clear and direct

You need to be clear and direct when talking to a colleague about a difficult subject. It's important that you don't go off on tangents, attribute blame, or talk around the subject. Instead, have a good plan to keep you focused on the agenda.

Honest and fair

Presenting information honestly means focusing on the facts. Be careful of your assumptions as they may cause you to view a situation subjectively, and can cause an unsatisfactory end to a conversation.


Remember, you probably don't really know what your colleague's thinking, so be fair. Identify your assumptions, put them aside, and give your colleague the benefit of the doubt.

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Listen effectively

Listening involves being open-minded enough to see that there may be another perspective to the situation that you haven't considered.

Listening therefore requires openness, respect for your colleague, adaptability, and a bit of modesty.


To demonstrate effective listening, you should ask your colleague open-ended questions and listen carefully to the answers.

Be assertive but tactful

Being assertive means stating the facts in an objective way, and being prepared for a possible negative response from your colleague.


It requires confidence, conviction, and taking responsibility for your opinions and actions. Tact is being sensitive to the other person's feelings. You can be assertive, yet still get the facts – and your views – across in a thoughtful and diplomatic way.

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  • It's important to use the appropriate communication style from the very beginning. Opening with an agenda means clearly outlining the points that will be discussed and the sequence in which they'll be discussed.

  • Having a difficult conversation, and making it progress well, requires following a clear structure. It should also involve adopting an appropriate communication style to suit the individual and the context.

  • There are five steps to creating progress in a difficult conversation. First, open with an agenda. Second, invite dialog. Third, share views and perspectives to learn from each other. Fourth, look for a mutual understanding, and finally, design an action plan.

  • Your communication style throughout the conversation is crucial to a positive outcome. It's important that you're clear and direct, and focus on the facts. You need to be honest and fair to your colleague. Also, be assertive but tactful, and listen effectively

Keep the focus on facts

Focusing on the facts can help you avoid having the conversation turn emotional.

Present the main points and go into detail as required.


Prior to the meeting, consider how the facts could possibly be misinterpreted by others. To help keep you focused on the relevant facts, you should avoid giving unsolicited advice. Also, try not to act patronizing or sarcastic, and steer clear of making ambiguous insinuations.

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