Survive and thrive in difficult conversations

Have you ever accepted a new position and dreaded having to inform your current boss you’re leaving? Have you ever felt that you deserve a pay raise, yet don’t know how to ask? Have you ever had to deliver a critical performance appraisal? If you answered yes to any of these, you aren’t alone.

These and other examples illustrate that difficult conversations are a fact of life. Research suggests we often avoid these conversations out of concern with how the stress will impact us and our counterparts, be it related to self-esteem or the overall relationship. Tempting as it may be, we shouldn’t dodge these conversations. A few simple tips can enable us not only to survive a difficult conversation, but thrive in its aftermath.

Prepare to be objective

The key to having a successful difficult conversation is to prepare. These conversations are often perceived as difficult because we envision how they’ll unfold before they begin. In our heads, we’re certain that the exchange will be emotionally charged and tempers will flare. We expect our boss to be upset we’re leaving or flatly refuse to pay us what we’re worth. We expect a subordinate will accuse us of being unfair in our critical, but constructive feedback. But is this assumptive mindset fair?

When preparing for difficult conversations, it’s important to take a step back. Don’t enter the discussion with the perspective that you’re right and the other party is wrong. Look at the situation from a neutral third-party view.

It pays to remember the parable of the three blind men who encountered an elephant blocking their path. Touching the elephant’s side, the first man shouted, “Surely we have come upon a huge wall.” The second man, approaching from the front, touched an oversized ear, saying, “Surely there are large fans blocking us.” And the final member of the trio, touching the elephant’s trunk announced, “We must be careful of the snakes hanging from the trees.”

Think about what each party brings to the situation. When you begin the conversation, seek to fully understand that perspective.

Stay clear

Often, we lose our sense of objectivity because our perspective is colored by emotion. Yet, we only think we know how the other person feels. In reality, we project our feelings onto the other person. We are guilty of being “I-centered.”

It’s important, therefore, to clearly express your feelings at the onset of the conversation. Offer an opportunity for your counterpart to do the same. Listen to what they say. If we deal with the facts of the difficult scenario, we can work to resolve it and move forward.

By taking this advice, the next difficult conversation you have may end up going better than you expect.


Deborah Good is an Clinical Assistant Professor at University of Pittsburgh Joseph M. Katz Graduate School of Business and College of Business Administration. Deborah specializes in issues related to organizational behavior and human resources management.