Tackling Tough Conversations

How good are you at tackling tough conversations, whether it be at work, school or your personal life? Are you confident and ready to address issues no matter what? Chances are there are conversations you know you need to have that you would rather avoid. Avoiding issues can lead to them simmering and festering, increasing their likelihood of bursting out at an inappropriate time and ultimately being dealt with in an ineffective way and with a less than ideal outcome. Luckily, with a bit of practice you can master the art of difficult conversations, leading to improved relationships in all areas of your life.

The problem with tough conversations is that they usually involve conflicts of perception, interpretation and values. At worst they pose a risk to our own self-image and self-esteem. For these reasons the conversations can easily become emotionally charged and confrontational. With practice however it is possible to shift our attitude from self-defence to mutual understanding, transforming these situations from one of conflict to one of learning.

The key to transforming a difficult conversation is to understand exactly what is really at play during it. Any difficult conversation is likely to involve three separate aspects: what actually happened; how each party feels as a result; and the implication of the issue in terms of self-image. These three aspects need to be addressed in conjunction with each other in order to fully understand what is taking place and how to resolve it.

What happened

Usually each person has their own perception of what occurred, but rather than accepting it as our interpretation we tend to feel that our version forms the “facts” of the matter and leave no room for any other valid explanation. In order to avoid this defensive stance a better approach is to focus on understanding the other person’s perception and interpretation of events and how it differs to our own.

What it means to me

It is important to understand the consequence of the conversation on the participant’s self-perception – does it raise questions such as ‘Am I a bad person because of this?’; ‘Does this mean I am not loyal?”; “Does this mean I am incompetent?”; “Does this mean I am unlovable?”. For example, a conversation with your boss about a raise may affect your feelings of value; a conversation about a relationship may affect your feelings about being worthy of love. It is important to identify these thoughts in order to rationalise them and therefore reduce their impact on our emotions. Your boss may reject a raise simply because there is no money in the budget, and the ending of one relationship due to incompatibility of values does not mean you will never meet someone whose values are better aligned with your own.


It can be hard to identify how each party is truly feeling during a difficult conversation as the emotions expressed may differ from the more intense, underlying emotions that are really affecting the person. For instance, someone may appear to be angry, however the cause of the angry display may be due to feelings of invalidation and rejection. By understanding the other person’s perception of the facts, and how this perception is impacting their own self-image, we can gain a better understanding of the true emotional drivers involved and how to address them. It may be that the anger being outwardly expressed will dissipate when the person no longer feels invalidated, or by offering reassurance which counters feeling of rejection.

Skills for tackling tough conversations

Having established what is really taking place in a difficult conversation it is necessary to develop and practice the skills to navigate them. By continually practicing the following you will be well on your way to mastering the art of difficult conversations, leading to greater success in both your personal and professional life.

  • Let go of the need to ascertain who is right and who is wrong and be prepared to accept and own your contribution to the issue
  • Shift the conversation from blame to understanding by focusing on listening rather than defending. Listen to the other party’s perception of the issue and its consequences as they see them
  • Reflect what you have learnt back to the other person to ensure they feel understood. Feeling understood is critical to being able to change perspective
  • Be willing to be honest about what you are feeling and avoid being dismissive of other people’s feelings either through words, body language or tone of voice. If true feelings are not addressed the issue is likely to remain unresolved
  • Reach a compromise by mutual exploration of the issue, making suggestions as opposed to demands and by keeping an open mind in regards to the suggestions made by the other person
  • View the conversation as a learning experience as opposed to a threat to our own identity. Avoid all or nothing thinking when it comes to judgements about others or about ourselves – for example, even if we have been in the wrong that does not make us a bad person
  • Let go of the need to control. It may be that you do know better and that you are right, but people are entitled to make their own decisions, even if they are mistakes. Mistakes and consequences are life’s greatest learning tool, resulting in greater experience, wisdom, and an improvement in perception and judgement in the future.


This blog is associated with venusempowered.com, a source of self-help resources and affordable support services via online consultations with a certified CBT therapist and counsellor


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