People - Top Tips - Managing difficult situations
Managing difficult situations


This document is designed as a quick reference guide to managing difficult conversations.

This will enable you to gain knowledge of a particular skill, task or process.

This means you can quickly find the key information that you need and refer to it on an ongoing basis whenever you need to refresh your knowledge.



Difficult conversations in the workplace are, unfortunately, a common occurrence. People donÕt necessarily start out wanting to be difficult however, sometimes individuals are put on the defensive and any other stance is nearly impossible.

People - Top Tips - Managing difficult situations

What you need to know

There are ways to manage problematic exchanges. Whether youÕre delivering bad news, giving a negative performance evaluation, or simply letting people know that the direction on a certain project is changing, communicating difficult subject matter can-and does-result in an emotionally-charged conversation. People say things they later regret and sometimes the damage is permanent. Still, it is possible to learn how to manage difficult conversations so that peopleÕs feelings are spared and the companyÕs best interests are put in the spotlight.


Step by Step


Working on yourself: How to prepare for the conversation


Before going into the conversation, ask yourself some questions:

1.   What is your purpose for having the conversation? What do you hope to accomplish? What would be an ideal outcome? You may think you have honourable goals, like educating an employee or increasing connection with your team, only to notice that your language is excessively critical or condescending. You think you want to support, but you end up punishing.

Some purposes are more useful than others. Work on yourself so that you enter the conversation with a supportive purpose.


1.   What assumptions are you making about this personÕs intentions? You may feel intimidated, belittled, ignored, disrespected, or marginalised, but be cautious about assuming that that was their intention. Impact does not necessarily equal intent.


1.   What ŌbuttonsĶ of yours are being pushed? Are you more emotional than the situation warrants? Take a look at your ŌbackstoryĶ. What personal history is being triggered? You may still have the conversation, but youÕll go into it knowing that some of the heightened emotional state has to do with you.



1.   How is your attitude toward the conversation influencing your perception of it? If you think this is going to be horribly difficult, it probably will be. If you truly believe that whatever happens, some good will come of it, that will likely be the case. Try to adjust your attitude for maximum effectiveness.


1.   Who is the opponent? What might they be thinking about this situation?

Are they aware of the problem? If so, how do you think they perceive it?

What are their needs and fears? What solution do you think they would suggest? Begin to reframe the opponent as partner.


1.   What are your needs and fears? Are there any common concerns? Could there be?


1.   How have you contributed to the problem? How have they?

People - Top Tips - Managing difficult situations

What you need to know

Four Steps to a Successful Outcome

The majority of the work in any conflict conversation is work you do on yourself. No matter how well the conversation begins, youÕll need to stay in charge of yourself, your purpose and your emotional energy.

Breathe, centre, and continue to notice when you become off-centre – and choose to return again. This is where your power lies. By choosing the calm, centred state, youÕll help your opponent/partner to be more centred, too.

Centring is not a step; centring is how you are as you take the steps.


Step #1: Inquiry

Cultivate an attitude of discovery and curiosity. Pretend you donÕt know anything and try to learn as much as possible about your opponent/partner and their point of view.

What do they really want? What are they not saying?

Let them talk until theyÕre finished. DonÕt interrupt except to acknowledge.

Whatever you hear, donÕt take it personally. ItÕs not really about you. Try to learn as much as you can in this phase of the conversation. YouÕll get your turn, but donÕt rush it.


Step #2: Acknowledgement

Acknowledgement means to show that youÕve heard and understood. Try to understand them so well you can make their argument for them. Then do it.

Explain back to them what you think theyÕre really going for. Guess at their hopes and honour their position. They wonÕt change unless they see that you see where they stand. Then they might. No guarantees. Acknowledge whatever you can, including your own defensiveness if it comes up. ItÕs fine; it just is. You can decide later how to address it.

Acknowledgement can be difficult if we associate it with agreement. Keep them separate. My saying, Ōthis sounds really important to you,Ķ doesnÕt mean IÕm going to go along with your decision.


Step #3: Advocacy

When you sense that theyÕve expressed all their energy on the topic, itÕs your turn. What can you see from your perspective that theyÕve missed? Help clarify your position without minimising theirs.

For example: ŌFrom what youÕve told me, I can see how you came to the conclusion that IÕm not a team player. And I think I am. When I introduce problems with a project, IÕm thinking about its long-term success. I donÕt mean to be a critic, though perhaps I sound like one. Maybe we can talk about how to address these issues so that my intention is clear.Ķ


Step #4: Problem-Solving

Now youÕre ready to begin building solutions. Brainstorming is useful, and continued inquiry. Ask your opponent/partner what they think would work.

Whatever they say, find something that you like and build on it.

If the conversation becomes adversarial, go back to inquiry. Asking for the otherÕs point of view usually creates safety, and theyÕll be more willing to engage.

If youÕve been successful in centring, adjusting your attitude, and in engaging with inquiry and useful purpose, building sustainable solutions will be easy.


Practice, practice, practice!

The art of conversation is like any art – with continued practice you acquire skill and ease.

You, too, can create better working relationships, ease communication problems and improve the quality of your work environment. YouÕre on the way, and here are some additional hints:


Tips and suggestions


1.   A successful outcome will depend on two things: how you are and what you say. How you are (centred, supportive, curious, problem-solving) will greatly influence what you say.


1.   Acknowledge emotional energy – yours and theirs – and direct it towards a useful purpose.


1.   Know and return to your purpose at difficult moments.


1.   DonÕt take verbal attacks personally. Help your opponent/partner come back to centre.


1.   DonÕt assume they can see things from your point of view.


1.   Practice the conversation with a friend before holding the real one.


1.   Mentally practice the conversation. See various possibilities and visualise yourself handling them with ease. Envision the outcome youÕre hoping for.