As a working professional, it is nearly impossible to avoid difficult conversations with your employees or peers. Whether telling an employee that they will not receive a raise, their performance is not up to par or terminating employment, both parties are likely to enter the conversation with heightened anxiety. Although having these conversations is never an easy task, it is important to understand the elements that lend to the difficulty and the ways in which you can manage the interaction.


When having a difficult conversation, there are several factors from both parties that can cause the interaction to be difficult. These factors include the following:

Different Perceptions. During difficult conversations, one must keep in mind each person may have a different perception of the same reality. This is because both sides do not have the same information and interpret the situation differently based on different, past life experiences.

Assumptions about Intent. Because one’s intentions exist in their heart and minds, we cannot always know a person’s intentions unless they explicitly tell us. We often assume one’s intentions and then feel hurt because we thought they meant to hurt us. Our thinking is usually based on many assumptions.

Feelings. During difficult conversations, we can become passionate and let our emotions impact our ability to think, problem solve, and communicate. Usually, when we are upset we are unable to listen. Feelings are usually at the heart of conflict and expressing feelings through sarcasm, passive aggression, and impatience impacts our handling of situations.

Blame. People typically blame and want to assign blame to the issue. Focusing on blame is ineffective because it prevents us from learning and correcting the situation. Blame focuses on judgment instead of managing the conflict and learning from mistakes and adjusting behaviors to ensure better results in the future.


Once you understand the factors that you may not be able to control, it is important to familiarize yourself with the factors that you can. There are several strategies one can use to manage difficult conversations to the best of their ability. These strategies include the following:

Identify a safe place to talk. Ensure both parties are comfortable expressing their thoughts. Embrace there is a mutual purpose and offer mutual respect.

Listen. Seek understanding, then see to be understood. This strategy helps us get past making assumptions. Good listening skills requires an honest curiosity about the other person. Focus on just listening because you care, not because you are supposed to. Ask open-ended questions. Paraphrase what they are saying to ensure you understand and acknowledge their feelings.

Use the “yes, and…” concept which validates that both your view of the situation and the other person’s view has value. From there you can embrace both viewpoints and work at understanding the other person’s point of view. Listen to the other person’s story and resist feeling like you have to give up on your own. You can feel hurt and angry, and they can equally feel that way. Be certain you hear what they say. The critical component is the “and” where you listen to the other person.

Avoid leaping to assumptions by asking yourself if you know a) what the person said or did, b) what was the impact of this on you and c) based on the impact, what assumption is being made about their intent? The next step is recognizing your assumptions are a guess. You can share your observations about what they have done.

Avoid statements with “you” in them as they accuse and blame. Use “I” statements which are less inflammatory and keep responsibility for what is expressed by the person who is speaking.

Focus on the contribution, not the blame. Ask how we each contribute to the problem and agree not to repeat what we did.

Handling difficult conversations is a skill we each need to work on over time. We will not get it right every time. By expanding our understanding of how difficult conversations can be successfully worked through, we express our interest in understanding others and moving to a positive outcome.

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