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Tip #1 on handling a difficult conversation: Create a safe space

We may prepare ourselves for a ‘difficult’ conversation, but do we do anything to help the other person prepare?  Too often we launch into the difficult conversation with little more than, “Can I have a word?”  Would you respond openly and positively if ‘a word’ turns out to be criticism?


Difficult conversation

I recall a colleague asking me “Can I give you some feedback?” and instantly I was mentally preparing myself for criticism.  My heart sank, defensive adrenalin kicked in… but in fact he wanted to praise me for how I handled a meeting and generated positive energy.

Imagine the opposite: you manager asks you for a chat, you’re expecting nothing special, so you’re stunned when they criticise something you have done.  Instantly the defensive adrenalin kicks in and you react to protect yourself – in your opinion the conversation is not a safe space.

Typically we react with either aggression (active defence) or withdrawal (passive defence).  Neither is suitable for a problem-solving conversation. When you have to ask someone for a difficult conversation you need to be aware of this. When you spot defensive behaviours, you need to find a way to help the individual calm down, so they can have a constructive conversation.

What does aggression look like?

You might see:

  • Anger – shouting, red face, stamping/table thumping/other strong gestures …
  • Overly controlling – leading the conversation where they want it, only talking about topics they are willing to address, talking over you, not listening, …
  • Blaming – throwing the blame on others and not accepting any responsibility, “Joe didn’t give me the analysis in time, so I couldn’t do it!”
  • Attacking – immediately throwing the situation back on you, “What do you expect when you don’t provide the necessary resources to do a half-decent job?!”
  • Negative stereotyping – dismissing others to present them in a poor light, “They’re IT nerds, need I say more?”

What are some signs of withdrawal?

  • Monosyllabic ‘grunts’ – withdrawing from the conversation with comments like “whatever”
  • Avoiding – unwilling to address the topic, “I’m not going to discuss this now “, or  going off on a tangent and diverting the conversation, …
  • Trivialising – laugh it off with comments like, “Surely you don’t think that’s worth mentioning!”
  • Masking their opinions with sugar-coating or sarcasm – understating or exaggerating, “I think your point is (er ) brilliant, I just think that others (um) may not quite get it.”  (ie that’s rubbish!)
  • Say one thing but mean another – you need to look for a mismatch in how they say their comment. E.g. they may quickly agree when you were expecting a debate, or you may notice an overly jolly tone to their voice or other inappropriate behaviour.

Tips on managing the conversation

When you notice these signals, you know that the other person is not in the right frame of mind to accept your message.  So what can you do to get them back on track?

  • Use the techniques that I wrote about in the previous blog to show you respect the other person. Be clear on your intent.
  • Approach the difficult conversation with confidence that it is the right thing to do. Prepare well so you can put your points across in a way that the other person will hear them.
  • Be humble about the situation – you don’t know the other person’s side of the story.  You need to be open to hearing this and seeking mutual understanding before you suggest or discuss improvements.
  • Think about ‘saving face’ as in the Oriental way of conversing. Preface your questions or comments with tentative phrases, “I am curious about how this happened …” “Perhaps you were unaware …” “In my opinion …” “Help me to understand …”
  • Soften the message.  Avoid dogmatic or judgemental statements and invite the other person to participate in a meaningful dialogue, “I’m beginning to wonder if …” (rather than “It’s obvious to me that …”)
  • Avoid overly soft statements just as much as overly hard ones, you want the other person to know you are confident to have an open conversation.  Not “I’m probably wrong, but..”
  • Start with the facts, this is safe ground for the difficult conversation. When you get agreement on the facts, you are opening up the dialogue
  • Accept differing views, don’t dismiss or reject them or you create unsafe space.  Allow them to be put on the table and then they can be discussed.  Encourage discussion to demonstrate openness and fairness.
  • When the person becomes emotional, allow them to calm down before seeking to progress the conversation.  They may need a short break, do agree with the other person when you will reconvene.   It is important to control your own emotions and not become sucked into an unhelpful emotional state.

I recommend ‘Crucial Conversations‘ by Patterson, Grenny, McMillan & Switzler, which has many useful tools and techniques.

‘Fierce Conversations’, by Susan Scott also has many helpful techniques

There are previous blog postings around assertiveness, which may also be helpful and if you have any comments or questions, please post them below.  If you are interested to pursue this topic further please contact me.


  • Mo says:

    Helpful to appreciate that it is better to wait than to try to sort out a problem, whent the person is not in the right frame of mind.
    It’s tough keeping my own frame of mind ‘right’ – I’m working on deep breathing to keep me calm and make myself breathe deeply at least 4 times before I say anything … helps me not put my foot in it.

  • Terri Klass says:

    Great post, Amanda with some wonderful points in how to recognize aggressive and passive communication styles!

    I find that validating the other person’s point of view is essential because then they are more apt to be open to suggestions. Also, leaders need to be empathetic when having difficult conversations. Putting ourselves in the other person’s place can help us see how they may be feeling.


  • Shelby says:

    Thanks, I like the quality contents.

  • Lacey Chambliss says:

    Keep on working, great job!

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  • Christian says:

    Good article. I’m facing a few of these issues as well..

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