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Difficult Conversations Training: Summary of Techniques

January 10, 2024 - Verity Gibson

No matter who we are or where we work, we all have to face difficult conversations at some point. Becoming effective at handling high-stakes conversations can make your work and life a lot easier. It’s also a very desirable trait to employers because it can save companies both time and money.

In this article, in addition to our training course, we discuss the tools needed to manage difficult conversations and how to conduct them in a professional, confident manner. Much of the information in this text is based on the book “Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes are High” by Patterson, Grenny, McMillan, and Switzler (2002).

In this article, we explore:

What is a difficult conversation?

A difficult conversation is a discussion between two or more people where:

  1. The stakes are high
  2. Opinions differ
  3. Emotions run strong
  4. The outcome significantly impacts their lives and there is a significant risk of negative consequences

There are many different situations where a difficult conversation may arise. For example, you may need to deal with lazy or disrespectful colleagues or you may need to speak up when you think there is a flaw in a project proposal. 

Difficult conversations can be tough, but conflict is a natural part of life. People have different experiences, motivations, opinions, and perceptions, which can lead to conflict. However, there is a positive side to conflict. By preparing yourself to handle it effectively, you can turn conflicts into opportunities for growth and progress. 

How to recognize a difficult conversation

You will display certain symptoms that will highlight whether you’re involved in a difficult conversation:

  • Physical signs – you will display the physical sign of stress and anxiety, for example, sweating, increased heart rate, shallow breathing, stomach ache, dry throat, tension etc.
  • Emotional signs – you will experience a strong emotional response e.g. fear or anger.
  • Behavioural signs – you may avoid or engage in unhelpful behaviors, such as, leaving the conversation, becoming quiet, not saying what you really think, raising your voice and so on.

Is it time for a difficult conversation?

Various signs indicate the need for a conversation with a manager. Here are four of the most common signs:

1. Performance Gaps and Concerns: When a team member consistently fails to meet expectations or underperforms, it’s time to have a conversation and find out what’s going on.

2. Interpersonal Conflicts: If you notice tensions, conflicts, or communication breakdowns within the team or between team members, it’s important to address the issue and have a conversation to resolve it.

3. Complaints: If team members complain about each other or if you find yourself complaining about a team member, this is a clear sign that a conversation is overdue.

4. Your Own Thoughts and Feelings: If you feel annoyed, resentful, or angry, it’s a sign that there is something not right. It’s important to open up a dialogue, listen to each other, and find a positive way forward.

Why does communication fail in difficult conversations?

Humans communicate all the time but the higher the stakes and the more emotional the conversation, can impact your ability to handle a conversation effectively. 

In high-stakes conversations you must be mindful of everything involved in the communication, such as, thoughts, emotions, words, voices, facial expressions and behaviors. 

Also, in these situations the stress response is likely to be triggered and the effects of this can hinder your communication e.g. your voices and facial expressions become harder to control, it’s more difficult to structure thoughts, your breathing rate increases etc.

The consequence of failing to communicate effectively in a crucial conversation can be extreme and lots of aspects of your life can be affected, such as, your career, relationships and health.

Are you an avoider or an aggressor?

Whilst it is not as simple as you are either an avoider or an aggressor, we all have tendencies of both, but we will most likely find one approach more comfortable and our default reaction when handling a difficult situation.


Avoiders tend to have a natural aversion to confrontation, VitalSmarts conducted a survey asking 1,025 managers and employees about an occasion when they had a concern at work but failed to speak up. Instead, the participants engaged in “one or more resource-sapping behaviors including: complaining to others (78 percent), doing extra or unnecessary work (66 percent), ruminating about the problem (53 percent), or getting angry (50 percent).” (Grenny, 2017)

There are numerous reasons and concerns as to why someone may avoid addressing the problem:

  • Hurting feelings: We don’t want to hurt the feelings of the other person
  • Reactions: We fear the reaction of the other person
  • Our own emotions: We worry about how we will feel if the other person reacts badly
  • Damaging relationships: We’re scared of damaging our relationship with the other person
  • Worst-case scenarios: We’re terrified of the worst-case scenario that we’ve built up in your head. Building up a worst-case scenario is also called catastrophizing! And it’s easy to do!

Unfortunately, by avoiding addressing the issue, it can prolong problematic situations, and cause more damage in the long run.


Where avoiders, will try to avoid a situation, aggressors take pride in taking matters into their own hands and “resolving” conflict through what they believe is strong leadership. These managers tend to have an abrupt approach that may be perceived as verging on bullying.

Whilst on paper it may seem like a positive to try and solve an issue immediately, aggressor managers tend to overestimate their abilities to handle sensitive situations at work. They can rush in, antagonize their staff and, like the avoiders, may not find a resolution at all, and in fact, could make it worse.

Setting up the conversation for success

Decide exactly what you’re dealing with

Is it an isolated event? A reoccurring problem? An interpersonal issue? By ascertaining how serious the issue is beforehand you can establish how the conversation will be handled. As an example, you may need to speak to an employee because they arrived an hour late to work one day without explanation but this would be handled differently to someone who has been late every day for the last two weeks.

Understand why you’re having the discussion

You need to enter the conversation knowing why you’re having it in the first place and what your preferred outcome is. Do you need more information from the person? Do they need to apologise? Does a plan need to be created? You need to understand your reasoning for the conversation because this will keep you focused even when you significantly differ in opinion or experience strong emotions.

Avoid assumptions – focus on observations

As humans, we naturally tend to make assumptions to make sense of the world around us. However, when we engage in important conversations, it’s important to rely only on observations and facts to construct our dialogue. If we make assumptions, we may fail to understand the full scenario and the perspectives of those involved.

In the Crucial Conversations book, the authors define dialogue as the free flow of meaning between people. This essentially means that you should talk openly and honestly with each other, working together to create the “Pool of Shared Meaning”. This is where the views, facts, opinions, theories, emotions and experiences shared in the conversation are understood and valued by everyone involved.

Choose the right time and location

A time and location where you can all fully attend to the conversation is needed or the issue won’t be dealt with effectively. Ensure that you check with the others that they can attend at that time and place and double-check when you meet. This consent also ensures that you’re all committed to the conversation.

Woman having a crucial conversation

Understand that everyone will find the conversation difficult

Recognize that the conversation will be just as difficult, maybe more so, for the others involved so enter it with empathy and compassion. Also, enter assuming that you have something to learn.

Dealing with second-thoughts

You may think about cancelling the meeting but consider the risks of not speaking up compared to speaking up.

Steps needed to manage difficult conversations

We will be covering the following steps needed to manage difficult conversations:

  1. Approaching a difficult conversation – Start with yourself
  2. Active listening
  3. Notice when safety is at risk
  4. Make it safe to share
  5. Non-verbal cues and body language
  6. Master your stories – dealing with strong emotions
  7. Choice of language
  8. Conversation framework

Practice difficult conversations with VirtualSpeech.

1. Approaching a difficult conversation – Start with yourself

When you feel threatened you may abandon what you want to say and instead choose to protect yourself by, for example, staying quiet or punishing others. So encouraging sharing can be difficult – the first thing you can do to ensure dialogue is to work on yourself.

Notice the signs of a difficult conversation: First become aware of when you are involved in a difficult conversation.

Return to dialogue: Pay attention to your motives as they may be moving away from dialogue. Ask yourself the following to return to dialogue:

  1. What do I want for myself, for others, for our relationship?
  2. How would I behave if I really wanted this outcome?

Refuse the Sucker’s Choice:

Notice when you start talking yourself into a “Sucker’s Choice” – these are either/or choices which can be used to justify unhelpful behaviour by saying that you had no choice but to argue against or withdraw – there was no other option.

See if you’re telling yourself that you have to choose between winning and losing or harmony and honesty etc.

Clarify what you don’t want and add this to what you do want, then ask whether there’s a way to accomplish both and bring you back to dialogue:

  • What you want: “I want Sam to be more reliable. I’m fed-up of being delegated his work the last minute because he hasn’t done it.”
  • What you don’t want: “I don’t have to have a heated argument which will cause tension between us and won’t resolve the situation.”
  • Asking how to accomplish both: “How can I have a honest discussion with Sam about being more reliable and avoiding causing tension and wasting time?”

2. Active listening

Having excellent active listening skills is crucial for successful one-to-one conversations, particularly when emotions are heightened. It’s not just about hearing the other person’s words; active listening requires the listener to make an active effort by utilizing a range of skills.

Be fully present

Active listening involves being fully present throughout a conversation. It’s vital to tune in with all your senses, so that you can truly understand the other person. The first step is obvious – listen attentively from start to finish.


By paraphrasing and repeating back what the person has said, it demonstrates understanding. It also allows for further clarification to gain more information from their perspective.

3. Notice when safety is at risk

Look for signs that people are scared because this will consequently ruin the quality of the conversation because they will only be thinking about themselves. When you feel unsafe you will resort to either silence or violence:

Silence is when you selectively share certain information and withhold other information. You want to avoid creating a problem and the others involved in the conversation don’t know what you really think thus reducing the flow of meaning into the pool. The three most common forms of silence are:

  • Masking: when you play down your ideas or you selectively show your thoughts, for example, you may be sarcastic or sugarcoat.
  • Avoidance: consists of changing the topic, not addressing the issue or changing the focus from yourself to others.
  • Withdrawing: when you leave the conversation.

Violence is compelling others to adopt your views which subsequently forces meaning into the pool. The three most common forms of violence are:

  • Controlling: when you pressure others to adopt your viewpoint, or you may interrupt others, overemphasize facts and dictate the discussion.
  • Labelling: consists of putting a label on others or ideas so they can be dismissed e.g. name-calling and generalizing.
  • Attacking: involves intimidating or ridiculing others.

To personally overcome falling into silence or violence you need to self-monitor by focusing on what you’re doing and what effect this is having. From this, you can adjust your behaviour accordingly. You don’t necessarily have to wait for a high-risk conversation to happen to start doing this – start by assessing how you react and behave when you’re stressed.

4. Make it safe to share

It’s important to make everyone feel comfortable enough to share or you risk diluting your content, or just saying whatever is on your mind without any concern. You need to learn to step away from the content when it feels unsafe to share, make it safe and then go back in.

There are two conditions where safety is at risk:

  1. A lack of mutual purpose
  2. A lack of mutual respect

1. A lack of mutual purpose

Finding a mutual purpose is the main way to make a discussion safe. You all need to be aware that you’re working together for a common outcome and that you all care about everyone’s interests and values. When purpose is at risk there are arguments, people become defensive, there are accusations, hidden agendas and you keep arriving back to the same topic.

See if mutual purpose is at risk by asking: Do others believe I care about their goals in this discussion? Do they trust my intentions?

2. A lack of mutual respect

When there is a lack of respect then a conversation becomes about defending pride and self-esteem. Remember that you don’t have to agree with what someone is saying to respect them.

See if mutual respect is at risk by asking: Do others believe I respect them?

Restore mutual purpose and mutual respect

Restore mutual purpose and respect by:

  • Apologizing when you’ve made a mistake that has negatively affected others.
  • Contrasting to fix a misunderstanding – when others feel disrespected because they have misread your purpose or motive explain what you don’t intend and explain what you do intend. This is a don’t/do statement where you:
    • Address the concerns that you don’t respect others or that you have a malicious purpose.
    • Confirm your respect or clarify your real purpose.
  • Use the CRIB tool to help you get to a mutual purpose if you are at cross-purposes:
    • Commit to seek mutual purpose – agree that you will come to a solution that serves everyone.
    • recognize the purpose behind strategy – everyone’s intentions should be examined. Ask people, including yourself, why they want (purpose) what they’re asking for (strategy). For example, if two people want the meeting room on Thursday then what they need is a private space. The argument isn’t about the meeting room specifically, it’s about having a private room.
    • Invent a mutual purpose – if you’re still having difficulty in agreeing on a mutual purpose invent one that has a higher level/more encompassing long-term goal as this is more motivating than the purposes that have kept you in conflict.
    • Brainstorm new strategies – search for mutual solutions.

5. Non-verbal cues and body language

As previously mentioned, non-verbal communication such as silence can speak louder than words. We must understand how we communicate in ways other than our words. Similarly, we can then gain meaning from other’s non-verbal cues.

Handling other people’s negative body language

Sometimes, people’s words may say one thing while their body language or eye contact might indicate something else entirely. We can gather a lot of information about a person’s mood, commitment, anxiety levels, and other aspects through their body language, facial expressions, eye contact, and intonation.

When someone displays negative body language, it’s important to remain calm and not let yourself get swept up in the emotions, particularly if the body language is confrontational or aggressive.

If you are experiencing negative body language, try to reopen the dialogue by:

  • Seek clarity: Ask the person questions such as “Why do you feel this way?”. This opens the opportunity for understanding and to show empathy.
  • Seek to re-engage: By trying to emphasize with the individuals situation, this presents the opportunity to reopen the dialogue, with them feeling heard, and more likely willing to cooperate.
  • Don’t jump to conclusions: Remember, our conclusions must be based on facts, we can only observe the behavior, not understand the reasoning.

Controlling your own negative body language

It is also vital to understand how our own non-verbal cues may be viewed by others. Ensure you are incorporating positive body language to give the right impression. Remember to: 

  • Have a cooperative stance
  • Face towards the person
  • Slight forward lean
  • Use head movements such as nodding to encourage

Learn more about body language with VirtualSpeech.

6. Master your stories – dealing with strong emotions

The higher the stakes the more difficult it is to control your emotions and strong emotions can lead to silence or violence.

A “Path to Action” helps you see how your thoughts, emotions and experiences lead to your actions. A Path to Action has the following steps:

  1. Something happens and you see it or hear it
  2. You tell a story about it (you form an interpretation)
  3. You feel emotions based on this story
  4. You act on these emotions

For example: You may see a colleague leaving work 30 minutes early and you get irritated and shout at her the next day. The fact is that this person left 30 minutes earlier before the working day finishes. That’s all you definitely know. You then told a story to yourself – that she’s lazy and selfish. This led you to be irritated and shout.

Jack Ma telling a story

Read this article to see an example of great storytelling by Jack Ma.

But you can take back control of your emotions by telling a different story and this will lead you to behave more appropriately. So what if you had told yourself that the colleague left because she’d received a phone call about her partner being admitted to hospital and she was so panicked that she left the office without telling anyone? You would have a different reaction.

So if strong emotions are leading you to silence or violence try going over the steps that occur between your thoughts, emotions and behaviour and ask the following questions:

  • How am I behaving? – maybe you’re displaying signs of silence or violence.
  • What emotions am I experiencing?
  • What story has led me to these emotions?
  • Look at the facts and ask what evidence do I have to support this story?
  • Separate your interpretations from the actual evidence – it’s likely that you’ve just formed a conclusion of what you think happened rather than what actually happened. Can I physically see or hear what I’m saying is a fact? What did I actually see/hear?
  • Re-evaluate your emotions by asking: Is this the correct emotional response to the situation?

Clever stories

Clever stories are what we tell ourselves to justify our behaviour. They excuse us from taking responsibility and having to acknowledge our mistakes:

  • Victim stories – telling yourself that it’s not your fault, that you’re innocent and that you haven’t contributed to the problem.
  • Villain stories – blaming others for everything, judging them as having the worst possible motives and justifying your own behaviour.
  • Helpless stories – telling yourself that you are powerless to do anything so you take the option of doing nothing.

You need to turn these stories into useful stories so you experience less disruptive emotions thus leading to beneficial dialogue.

  • Turn victims into actors by asking – am I playing down my role in this issue while amplifying others’ roles? recognize that in most situations, you have added to the issue in some way – even if it’s because you didn’t say something earlier.
  • Turn villains into humans – why would a decent person do this? Swap your judgement with compassion and self-justification with personal responsibility.
  • Turn helpless into ables – What do I really want for me, for others, for our relationship? How would I behave if I really wanted this outcome?

7. Choice of language

Your language uses, in terms of what you say and how you say it, can massively impact the outcome of a conversation.

Consider your choices of words, are they coming across as confrontational, and more than likely going to receive a defensive response, or are you using cooperative language to engage in an open dialogue?

Additionally, when you have created the right condition for dialogue you need to speak openly and honestly but not hurt others. It’s important to “STATE your path” by using the STATE skills – these are especially useful for handling sensitive topics. It does bring the focus to yourself so it can be quite daunting at first.

Share your facts – Start with your facts as they are the least controversial and persuasive elements of your Path to Action. Don’t bring your interpretations into this.

“I’ve noticed that you’ve missed the last two team meetings.”

Tell your story – explain what you’ve concluded based on these facts but look out for any safety risks and deal with them if they arise.

“Recently you’ve requested for me to send all of my drafts to you and check-in with you every day about the conference plan. I feel that you don’t have confidence in my work.”

Ask for others’ paths – ask for others’ facts and stories.

“Do you see this differently?”

“What’s going on?”

“This is how it looked to me, have I misunderstood?”

Talk tentatively – When you’re sharing your story remember that it’s an interpretation and not a fact so don’t tell the story as though it’s a fact. The following statements are good ways of doing this without being too aggressive or passive:

“I get the impression that…”

“From my point of view…”

“In my opinion…”

Encourage testing – Invite opposing views and challenge your own thinking. If they seem reluctant to share consider saying: “Let’s say I’m mistaken. What if the opposite is true?”

8. Conversation framework

Breaking down your conversation into a clear and manageable framework is vital to help aid success. 

It will help you to:

  • define and set out the goals of the meeting
  • separate your observations from your assumptions
  • stay on track
  • manage your emotions
  • maintain a cooperative tone
  • reduce your own anxiety about the meeting

The following conversation framework will help structure the dialogue, and keep your conversation on track:

  • Give a brief overview of what you want to discuss
  • State the reasons you wish to have this conversation
  • Describe the behaviour you have observed
  • Ask for the perspective from the other person
  • Be clear about the next stages moving forward and outline specific goals
  • Explain the potential consequences, and decide the best way to move forward.

What if the conversation goes wrong?

You can prepare the best you can, but things can always go array in emotionally charged, difficult situations. So what do you do if you find yourself unable to progress the conversation or at loggerheads with the other person?

In their book Crucial Conversations, Granny, Patterson, McMillan, Switzler, and Gregory give us C.R.I.B. – a technique to call on when it feels we are stuck in a battle of wills:

C – Cultivate a commitment to find common ground

When you sense that despite your best efforts, the conversation is becoming strained and common ground seems elusive, it’s crucial to take a step back from the conversation’s content. Express your commitment to identifying shared objectives.

R – Recognize the underlying purpose

While being open to a shared goal is a crucial initial step, it’s not sufficient. This step holds particular significance. Take a moment to reassess what you truly desire, differentiating it from the suggested strategy aimed at fulfilling that desire. Instead of fixating on the demand itself, focus on the why behind your suggestion.

I – Innovate a shared purpose

Upon identifying the purpose behind the other person’s strategy, you may discover that your actual goals align more than initially perceived. From this realization, collaborative strategies can be devised. However, if a deeper exploration reveals conflicting true purposes, the challenge intensifies. In such cases, strive to innovate a shared purpose that centers around broader, long-term objectives.

B – Brainstorm together

Once a clear shared purpose is established, initiate a brainstorming session to generate new strategies benefiting all parties involved. Ensure discussions encompass how success will be measured and how changes will be implemented. Agree upon specific consequences and schedule a follow-up meeting to support your team in implementing the agreed-upon changes effectively.

Turning difficult conversations into actions

Ideas may not be put into action if people are unsure of how the decision will be made and if people don’t follow-up on their promised action. Conclusions and decisions must be clarified.

Types of decision-making

There are four types of decision-making:

  • Command – The authority makes the decision without the involvement of others but they explain their reasoning.
  • Consult – The authority invites others to provide information to influence them before making a decision. Consultation is important when: many people are affected by the decision, it’s easy to gather the information, people care about the decision and there are multiple options.
  • Vote – This is where an agreed-upon percentage swings the decision. It’s used when there are multiple strong options. It shouldn’t be used when people won’t support the outcome if it goes the way they oppose – the losers shouldn’t really care about the result. Never use voting instead of dialogue.
  • Consensus – Everyone honestly agrees with a decision and supports it. This is only used for high-stakes and complex issues. It’s important not to pretend that all participants will get their first choice

To decide which decision-making process to use ask:

  • Who cares? Establish those that want to be involved, it’s not worth including those that don’t.
  • Who has the expertise needed to make the decision?
  • Who must agree with the decision? You might need certain authorities to cooperate.
  • How many people should be involved? The preference is to involve the fewest number of people that will produce a high-quality decision.

Transferring decision into action – finishing clearly

  • Who? Allocate each responsibility to a person.
  • What? What exactly is their responsibility – make this very clear.
  • By when? Set deadlines.
  • Follow-up: Decide how you will follow-up and the timeline for this.
  • Document the decisions made and all of the commitments promised.
  • Hold people accountable to their promises or it’s time for another difficult conversation…

Action points

To start developing your skills for difficult conversations, it’s best to first reflect on how you usually respond in these situations and analyze your effectiveness. Consider asking for feedback from others about how they view your ability to handle stressful situations.

From this, you can discover your strengths and weaknesses so you’ll know which areas to target. With practice managing difficult conversations becomes significantly easier and significantly less daunting.