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How to Handle Difficult Conversations

Blog pic (crucial conversations)

We came across a book that describes how to handle difficult but important conversations and liked it so much that we decided to share the information on our blog.  We hope you find it useful too.

A crucial conversation can be defined as any conversation that…

  • has high stakes
  • is emotionally charged
  • has multiple perspectives

These characteristics are embedded in many common processes and practices, including performance evaluations, team meetings, informal feedback, decision-making, and more.  To perform better in emotionally-charged situations, consider the seven points below.  These points are based on the book Crucial conversations: Tools for talking when stakes are high (Patterson, McMillan, & Switzler, 2002).  They are particularly relevant for managers and leads.

1.  Recognize your motives

First we must recognize our own motivation and intentions.  Start with the end point in mind and ask yourself:

  • What do I want for me?  (keeping peace, blaming, saving face, etc. are not good starting points)
  • What do I really want for the other person?
  • What do I want for the relationship/team/organization?

2.  Be on the lookout for warning signs

When people feel unsafe in a conversation they tend to display one of two defense mechanisms:

Avoid:  masking emotions, maintaining silence, withdrawing from the conversation

Attack:  dominating the conversation, interrupting the speaker, and escalating to name-calling and attacking

Before recognizing how other people react under stress, look at your own style by asking yourself:

  • Which category do I move towards in stressful situations?
  • What can I do when I recognize my own pattern during a crucial conversation?  (take a time-out!)

3.  Recognize your own biases

When we fall into our patterns (avoid or attack), we begin to justify our behavior and make attribution errors.  Therefore, it is important to recognize our own bias in regard to:

Your own part:  Avoid playing the victim.  Look for your own role in the situation – even if you can’t identify it, it’s still important to try.

Their part:  Avoid making the other person the villain.  Think of reasons that a rational person may do that behavior.  Think back and see if there were any times that you displayed similar behavior.  You probably have at one point or another.  Knowing this can help you put yourself in the other person’s shoes.

Sometimes you won’t be able to comprehend their story – if that’s the case, it’s important to simply recognize that you don’t know.  Then before jumping to conclusions, your job is to learn their story.

4.  Create safe conditions for the conversation

Now that you’ve identified your objectives and recognized your own defense mechanism and biases, you are ready to begin the conversation.  At the onset, your first priority should be creating a safe environment.  You can do this by establishing the following:

Shared purpose:  Communicate that you care about their goals, interests, and values.  The goal is to make sure they understand that both parties are working toward a common outcome.  Note that shared purpose can also be established at the end of the conversation by collaborating with the other person to identify follow-up actions.

  • I care about your experience as a ______, and I know we both want that experience to be as positive as it can be.

Mutual respect:  Communicate that you care about the person him/herself.   The goal is to make sure that the other person knows that you care about and respect them as an individual.

  • Your success is important to me too.

5.  S-T-A-T-E your perspective

Once you’ve established a shared purpose and a sense of mutual respect, the other person will be more ready to hear what you have to say.  Use the following acronym to “STATE” your perspective while maintaining a safe environment:

  • S:  Share what you know by stating the facts (your observations, examples of behavior, etc.)
  • T:  Tell them why it matters – go beyond the facts to your conclusions (why you’re concerned, why you care)
  • A:  Ask for their perspective (what are their facts, what are their intentions, what do they want?)
  • T:  Talk tentatively (recognize that your observations are likely to be incomplete, communicate your own style of avoiding or attacking, build safe conditions)
  • E:  Encourage opposing views and allow others to challenge your facts (play devil’s advocate, allow for disagreement and recognize that any feelings are valid)

6.  Explore their side of the story

Help the other person explore their own story by engaging in the following actions:

  • Ask questions:  Ask for their facts and story
  • Mirror:  When you see their feelings, recognize them (“You seem frustrated”)
  • Paraphrase:  Display active listening by paraphrasing important statements

 7.  Move towards action

Once both stories are communicated, your goal is to collaboratively move towards action that will help the other person address the behavior.  The most important things to consider in this stage include:

  • Collaborate:  Work together to brainstorm ideas and actions.  Invite the other person to set goals with your input, and involve them as much as possible in identifying actions and deciding which ones to take.
  • Document:  Don’t rely on fickle memory – document the decisions and actions that are the outcome of the meeting.
  • Follow-through:  Follow up and hold the other party accountable.


To learn more about crucial conversations, check out the links and references below.  

Patterson, K., Grenny, J., McMillan, R., & Switzler, A. (2002). Crucial conversations: Tools for talking when stakes are high. McGraw-Hill.

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