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5 Strategies for Tackling Tough Conversations

5 Strategies for Tackling Tough Conversations
Published January 2, 2013 by Scott McDowell

One of the hardest parts of being a leader is having difficult conversations: firing someone, getting into it with a client, apologizing for a mistake, or delivering bad news. Many of us choose avoidance as often as possible. That uncomfortable feeling (in your gut, your hands, in the back of the throat) is a warning sign: tough conversation ahead.

In the book Difficult Conversations by Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton and Sheila Heen, the authors write, "Our anxiety results not just from having to face the other person, but from having to face ourselves."

Whether the source of the conflict stems from circumstance, a challenge to your identity as a leader, or protecting one's turf, stemming the tide of personal emotions and dealing in a direct, measured way can let the air out and diffuse conflict effectively.

Here are some methods to use with your team, your boss, or anyone else in the face of everyday conflict.

1. Draw out possibility.

Instead of using a blunt doorstop of a statement like, "This is the problem!" turn it into a question. "What would you say if...?" or "Could it be that...?" are both great disarming phrases.

2. Share the impact.

One tactic to disengage harsh feelings is to share the anxiety or tension that you feel about the conversation. Andrew Lightheart, who runs workshops about how to communicate in high-stakes situations and writes the blog, A Peaceful Resolution, says communicating your anxiety about the conversation can help you "step out of automatic roles and become a bit more human." Just stating your discomfort can soften the prickliness.

3. Use silence.

Silence works especially well when facilitating teams of people through rough terrain like a strategy session or a pressure-filled meeting. Throw something out there and wait. See what bubbles up. Most people need to fill up the conversational space with words, so learn to embrace uncomfortable silences. Sometimes it just takes a moment for the important stuff to hatch. Just wait.

Communicating your anxiety about the conversation can help you step out of automatic roles and become a bit more human.

 4. Coax insight.

Not to be confused with giving advice. The phrase, "and what else?" lets your cohort formulate Option 2, usually a more measured and calmer, though less intuitive, response.  "And what else?" is one of the most powerful questions according to Michael Bungay Stanier in his book, Do More Great Work. He offers variations on this theme: "Do you have any further thoughts on this?" and "Can you think of anything else?"

5. Extinguish blame.

The need to blame is a reactionary feeling; it's quite normal. But blame usually signifies more complicated emotions. In Difficult Conversations, the authors encourage talking in terms of "joint contribution" rather than blame, even though that tactic can feel incomplete. Blame, they say, "is a stimulus to search further for hidden feelings. Once those feeling are expressed, the urge to blame recedes."


Dealing head-on with your emotions can minimize anxiety and make tough conversations easier to handle. After all, a tough conversation is usually less difficult in hindsight.

-- How about you? 

What's in your bag of tricks? How do you deal with tough conversations?

More about Scott McDowell

Scott McDowell is a strategy consultant and a coach to new managers & first-time leaders. He wrote New Manager Handbook to help leaders in transition panic lessHe also hosts a radio show called The Long Rally on WFMU.

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