Samantha Rodgers' blog

Difficult Conversations

The conversation we dread… made easier!

I gave a couple of workshops on this topic last week and thought it would be worth sharing the key points.

While we all have some inkling of how important it is to develop positive rapport, forming strong teams and establishing a process of frequent feedback, the difficult conversation is always one that can elicit a physiological response when we think about it: sweating palms, increased pulse and butterflies in the stomach.

However, we also know that putting it off is going to make the eventual conversation even more difficult.

So tips for the conversation itself.

(I am assuming that we can skip the practical preparation: where, when, how to organise the meeting… and get straight to the conversation it self.)

Firstly: Know Thyself

What are your default behaviours and management style? Do you tend to avoid, accommodate, compromise, compete or collaborate? Instead of the conversation you need to have- what are you likely to do?

What about Hersey and Blanchard’s Situational Leadership: do you differentiate how you treat your team? Who do you direct, delegate, coach and support, and are these strategies appropriate for each member of your team?

Finally, using DISC terminology, how to you manage and communicate to those with high core behaviours styles of Dominance, Interpersonal, Steadiness and Compliance? What is your style and how far will you need to adapt to ensure effective communication?

In a nutshell:

High Ds will want victory and will tend to become demanding when in conflict

High Is will want acknowledgement and will be expressive (often emotional)

High S’s will want harmony and will become compliant

High C’s will want justice and will withdraw in conflict.

Handy things to know when conversations get difficult. What about you? What are your ‘go to’ behaviours when the going gets tough?


The Conversations

In the conversation, up to three different conversations might be present; it is your job to explore which conversations are relevant so both parties understand one another and are able to move forwards.

The ‘What Happened’ conversation

In this conversation, don’t assume you have all of the facts. You probably don’t. Don’t worry about who is right or wrong, instead, seek to explore each others’ stories. Move away from ‘certainty’ to curiosity.

Even if the impact of the behaviour necessitating ‘The Talk’ is catastrophic, don’t assume they meant it. No-one can see into the future and determine what might happen. So separate intent from impact.

And finally for this conversation: don’t blame, instead map the contribution.  Chances are that this person is not only one to contribute. If you work on this person’s team, you may also have contributed through action or inaction. Blame is about looking backward, whereas focusing on contribution enables both of you to acknowledge it and then look to solutions. It can take the heat out of the conversations, just as blame can exacerbate the situation.

The Feelings Conversation

Feeling matter and they will be a part of the conversation. Skill is required to keep yours in check, and to be able to share those feelings and understand them, without showing them. It is important to acknowledge feelings on both sides though, before trying to move on to the ‘problem-solving’. Don’t’ judge or evaluate feelings, acknowledge them.

The Identity Conversation

Difficult conversations can threaten our construct of self and othersà tread carefully when identity is on the line in a conversation.

Everyone thinks of themselves in the following ways: Am I good? Am I competent? Am I worthy of love? These are our areas of vulnerability, so if the conversation is not about identity, then make sure the person knows it. A good idea is to focus on the behavior of a person and not ‘who they are’.

When you judge people you often paint a picture of what you think of them!


Having a Learning conversation

Raise the issue or let it go? 

Is it worth having the conversation? Think of the purpose of your conversation.


Begin from the third story.

You have one chance to frame the conversation you want to have. Think carefully about what you want to say the purpose is, and the language you will use to convey it. Think about the person’s possible responses. You want to use this opportunity to open up the conversation, not shut it down. It shouldn’t be your story or their’s, but what you can elicit from the facts. Be as neutral as possible.


Listen from the inside out

Once the third story has been given: listen. Get yourself into a position of curiosity and let them say what they need to say. Ask open, neutral questions to get more information about the three conversations that may be at play. Acknowledge and paraphrase what you hear and don’t just listen to the wordsà check all of the information you are getting (including nonverbal). Don’t take offense and don’t respond yet- you will soon have your turn. However, it they are getting off topic, reframe with a relevant comment or question. Don’t coach, don’t advise, don’t interrupt. Listen.



Speak for yourself with clarity and power. You are entitled to half of the conversation and now it is your turn to give information. Always start with what matters most. Share your understandings (but not as THE truth) and explain where they come from. Be precise and clear.

One strategy for speaking:

Describing the issue: I see

Use neutral language that communicates your perspective: ‘I notice this is the fourth time you have started talking while I was’ rather than ‘You shouldn’t interrupt me.’


Clarifying the issue: I feel

  • Specify how the situation makes you feel.
  • Always use I statements

‘When I am interrupted I feel that my opinion isn’t valued’


Solving the problem: I want

The feeling statements above are a bridge to a declaration of how you’d like the situation resolved.

‘I would like to find a solution that gives me an opportunity to better understand your views, and also voice my own.’


Problem Solving

Together, once all three conversations and stories have been explored you can work together to create solutions. Take the lead in discussion, allowing for joint construction of next steps forward. If the conversation starts to stray, reframe and keep it on track. Look after yourself and them in the conversation- relationships that only go one way rarely last.


Putting it all together

Remember your conversations and remember how to plan a learning conversation. If either of you need a break at any point, take it. Try to keep to the issues and keep calm. Be persistent when explaining that it will take both of you to play a role in the solution.

And remember, sometimes it will be you in the barrel. If so, take responsibility for the problem and explain your actions. Plan for future success and show your willingness to find a solution.

Now, go have that difficult conversation… before it has you!

Key resources:

Communicating in small groups, by Steven Beebe and John Masterton (2011, Tenth edition)

Difficult Conversations: Discussing What Matters most, by Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton and Sheila Heen (2010)