15 Expert Tips to Tackle Difficult Conversations

A psychologist, NLP practitioner and professional manager share their tips for improving the way you tackle difficult conversations.


The psychologist:
Professor Fiona Patterson
Director, Work Psychology Group

  1. Be specific: Making a clear and concise point, based on description of examples rather than judgement, is more likely to be effective when discussing performance or sensitive issues.
  2. Be aware of your impact on others: Avoid using emotive language, and keep focused on the issue rather than the person, to ensure your messages are interpreted and received as you intended.
  3. Be aware of others’ emotional responses: By being attuned to others’ emotions you can uncover issues, giving the individual the chance to talk about them and move the conversation along.
  4. Be sincere, honest and balanced in your approach: Be sincere in your communication, balance honesty with tact where required, avoiding ‘sugar-coating’ or diluting messages.
  5. Remain open and engaged: Be prepared to engage in a two-way discussion, allowing others the chance to discuss and reflect. The other person is likely to leave the conversation more satisfied if they have had the chance to provide their own opinion or contribute to shaping the solution.


The NLP expert:
Miranda Stephenson
NLP Practitioner, Motivation in Motion

  1. Prepare your state of mind: Remove thoughts of judgement and criticism that are barriers to having constructive conversations. Your personal experience of the situation will have an impact on the outcome.
  2. Prepare your evidence – not your opinion: Do not use words like ‘feel’ and ‘think’, which suggest opinion and make the conversation personal as opposed to factual and professional.
  3. Ask them for their perception: You should be open and genuinely interested in the other person’s views and experience of the situation. Let them talk without interrupting, then ask them probing questions.
  4. Summarise your understanding: When you’ve managed to help the person identify their appropriate behaviour or underperformance, check you’ve understood them correctly.
  5. Agree a way forward: Encourage the other person to take responsibility for their change of behaviour, meaning they find the solution rather than you telling them what to do.


The Professional Manager:
Richard Thomas
Chartered Manager, Chairman of CMI London & South East Regional Board

  1. Keep focused: Adopt an ‘I'm going to be fascinated not irritated mind set’ (it takes some practice to remain in 'fascinated' mode sometimes).
  2. Explore every angle: Review the issue from both a factual and emotional perspective - both yours and your colleague including what it 'means' to you both as individuals.
  3. Is it worth it?: Decide your purpose and consider what 'good' is for an outcome. Decide: is it worth the difficult conversation?
  4. Be objective: Introduce the issue using 'third party' language and explore both sides understanding of facts, emotions and importance.
  5. Pay attention: Problem solve and as you do so look and listen to the other party to ensure they remain in meaningful dialogue rather than getting angry or withdrawing.