How to Make Those Difficult Conversations Easier

The Big Show arguing with referee Scott Armstrong.

Wouldn’t want to argue with him!

Life in any firm can be hard. One of the things that makes life difficult is having difficult conversations. Here are some examples:

  • There’s the colleague you’d like to talk to who either hardly ever turns up to group meetings, or arrives late or spends most of his time tapping on his smartphone – this irritates you and you’d like to say something to address this behaviour.
  • You have had feedback that several messages have been left with your secretary but that the messages have not been passed on accurately. This is not the first time that she has failed to pass on messages, though it’s the first time a client has specifically complained to you. When and how would you tackle this issue with her?

In most firms people either don’t say anything because they’d be embarrassed or frightened of the consequences – or they handle it so badly that matters escalate and they end up regretting giving it a go!

One of my sources of inspiration for this article was hearing a mother having a difficult conversation with her teenage son. It went like this:

“Stuart, when I see two balls of soiled socks under the coffee table and another three next to the TV, I feel irritated because it’s important to me that the rooms we share in common are tidy. Would you be willing to put your socks in your room or in the washing machine?”

Instead of the usual display of teenage rebellion, a conversation followed and the matter was addressed painlessly and quickly. I found out more about how the mother deals with such situations and she told me about Non-Violent Communication (NVC). Before looking further at NVC, let’s have a look at the usual tactics of having difficult conversations and why they often don’t work long term: 

Punishment (eg “if you don’t do this, I’ll do that….”) – this can be effective, but you’ll need hierarchical power (ie you’re the boss) for this tactic to work. But the problem with this approach is that there is the risk if used inappropriately that they’ll subtly get you back somehow sometime… It’s usually more effective if you can get the other person to want to do things differently.

Rewards can be better – the other person might change their behaviour, but there is eviodence that they probably won’t repeat the positive behaviour without another reward, so again this doesn’t tend to be a sustainable solution.

Expressing your frustration/anger with their behaviour – Using judgemental or emotive language usually makes matters worse. The other person will feel personally criticised and react emotionally by denying your assertion or arguing back.

So what about the NVC approach? There are 4 steps, as follows:

Step 1 – Make the observation, without judging the other person 

First, we should observe what is actually happening in the situation: what are we observing the other person saying or doing that is not (in NVC language) ‘enriching our life’? The trick is to be able to articulate this observation without introducing any judgment or evaluation—to simply say what the other person is doing that we don’t like. It might help to imagine watching the incident on a video camera and then asking yourself  ‘what am I observing them doing? It’s harder than it sounds.

It is important not to imply that their behaviour is causing you to feel angry. For example, the phrase “when you do that it makes me feel annoyed” is ‘violent’ communication. It implies the other person is causing you to feel annoyed.  They may have been the stimulus for your anger, but not the cause.  How we feel is down to us. An NVC equivalent approach would be: “When I see you doing x, I feel y because I have a need for Z ”. In other words, annoyance is caused by our own thinking, not by the behaviour of others.

Step 2 – Express your feelings

Next, we state how we feel when we observe this action: are we anxious, annoyed, disappointed, frustrated, irritated, perplexed etc.? Allowing ourselves to be seen as vulnerable by expressing our feelings can help resolve conflicts.

Step 3 – Connect your feeling to your needs that are not being met

And thirdly, we say what needs of ours are connected to the feelings we have identified. This avoids blaming the other person and decreases the chances of them blaming us in return.

Step 4 – Make a clear request

Not a demand. Requests should use positive, action language and should say what a person should do – not what they shouldn’t do. Requests should be specific – ‘I want you to listen/respect/consider/realise….’ are all too vague.

It can be hard to distinguish between a demand or a request – if our objective is to get what we want, then it’s probably a demand!

It’s never going to be easy having a difficult conversation. Clearly, the better the relationship you have with the other person the more chance the conversation will work. If it can work for sons and dirty socks, it might work for colleagues and their behaviour in meetings!

I offer a couple of prizes for the best scripts attempting to deal with either of the scenarios described above. Send to

This entry was posted in Leadership and Management, Managing Change and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s