Master Difficult Conversations

Written on by Mindy Haas

Recently, I’ve had to give not-so-positive feedback to a person close to me. I dreaded it. I could feel my heart palpitating, the knots twisting in my stomach, and my palms sweating.   Do I really need to have this conversation? I asked myself. I would prefer NOT to do it, but deep down I knew it wasn’t an option. If I said nothing, the resentment would build up inside me until it burst out in some unhealthy way.   But how could I say it without alienating this person? What if they didn’t take it very well?

Without scientific evidence to back me up, I think I can confidently say, NO ONE LIKES DIFFICULT CONVERSATIONS. (If you do, please contact me, and I’ll retract my statement.)

But why do we hate them so much? Well, quite simply, it all comes down to fear. We fear that we will hurt feelings and permanently damage the relationship. We fear the other person will either erupt in anger or sulk in silence.

When we are scared, our minds operate in a fight or flight mode. This is why so many of these conversations go awry or never happen at all. Many believe it’s not possible to have a good relationship with a person AND bring up touchy subjects.

But that’s wrong. There is a way to broach controversial topics AND have a positive outcome.   As I prepared for the aforementioned conversation, I remembered a book I owned called Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking when the Stakes are High.   I can’t recommend this book enough. Buy it. Read it. Everyone can benefit from it.

I’ve summarized some key points for you here:


The authors define crucial conversation a discussion between two or more people where 1) the stakes are high, 2) opinions vary, and 3) emotions run strong.   It’s those conversations that can go sideways very quickly.


You cannot control how others will react but you can control how you do. So, start by observing your own behavior and ensuring you are practicing good conversation techniques.   Once you get the hang of it, you can model it for others.


People react to difficult conversations in one of two ways: passive-aggressively or aggressively. Start to observe yourself in conversations and try to recognize if you use any of these behaviors.   It’s very important to stop yourself when you realize you are acting in one of the following ways.


Masking is a way to hide how you truly feel about a situation using tactics like sarcasm or sugarcoating.

Avoiding is a way to steer away from uncomfortable topics by changing the subject or cracking a joke. We’ll talk, but not about the real issue at hand.

Withdrawing is when we pull out of a conversation altogether. We either don’t speak or leave the room.


Controlling is when we dominate a conversation by trying to force our views onto others. We might interrupt or ask leading questions.

Labeling others in the conversation is a way for us to discredit them or their ideas so we don’t have to defend our own.

Attacking is a bullying technique where we use belittling and threatening language to make sure our point is made.


Sometimes we make up stories in our head to justify our actions or inactions. Here’s an example scenario: You probably should stay a little later at work to meet a deadline, but you go home instead.

Now, say you miss the deadline and your boss has a talk with you about it. After, you start talking to all your coworkers about what an unfair boss you have and how there was no way you could have met the timeline he imposed.   Here, you’ve created a story where you are a victim, and your boss is the villain.

What you’ve neglected to tell your coworkers is your role in missing the deadline.   You never talked to your boss about pushing the deadline out and you left work early instead of getting it done.

These stories allow us to avoid our accountability and place the blame on someone else.


Now that you know which behaviors to look for in yourself, it’s time to set a goal. Before approaching a situation, determine what you want to get out of it. Then, when you feel yourself being drawn into an emotional reaction, use it as a guidepost to pull you back into perspective.   Here’s an example of a goal

I want to ask my coworker to stop talking over me during meetings AND keep a civil, if not friendly, working relationship.

Also be careful not to let our emotions get the best of us. When we do, we tend to think it’s not possible to meet both objectives. So, we resort to the unhealthy tactics outlined above.


Mastering difficult conversations starts with 3 easy steps: 1) recognize how you act in tense situations, 2) be aware of stories you create to avoid accountability, and 3) know what you want from a conversation and work to get there.

In two weeks, I’ll continue this topic with more tips on how to counteract the conversation behaviors in other people. Stay tuned!


Patterson, Kelly, et al. Crucial Conversations: Tools For Talking When the Stakes Are High. Second Edition. McGraw Hill, 2012.

Photo courtesy of Joshua Ness via Unsplash.

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