Resolving difficult conversations – looking through a different lens


We often put off difficult conversations hoping that the problem will go away. This very rarely happens and often small issues can turn into much more difficult and immovable problems.

Added on 02 February 2017 by Pam Jones

Difficult conversation

Looking at difficult conversations through a different lens can give even the most challenging meeting a more positive slant.

If handled well a performance conversation can help to move issues on and change things for the better. It can build credibility and team morale and also reduce the stress and tension which may have built up around the issue. Finally, a positive conversation can act as a developmental tool to enhance and build a performance culture in the team.

The eight step model below can help you prepare for any conversations you may need to have.

Difficult conversations

Step 1: Clarify the situation

It’s important to clarify the situation. You may have prepared well for the meeting and gathered plenty of information but always listen and focus on what the other person has to say.

We often go into conversations with a set of views and assumptions and if we aren’t careful these can create a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Ask questions to develop your understanding and try to see the situation from the other person’s perspective. This can often bring a new perspective to the situation and help you both to understand what is really happening. 

Step 2: Demonstrate empathy and trust

Displaying empathy and understanding, will build trust and help the conversation to move ahead in a positive manner.  If you have built a positive relationship with someone it is much easier to work on the issues you need to tackle.

It’s difficult to sustain anger with someone who is agreeing with you and trying to understand your perspective. Equally if people feel unsafe they will withdraw from the issue and become either unresponsive or aggressive.

Step 3: Show respect

Showing respect for others is essential. If you treat someone with respect, they are more likely to respond well to suggestions and feedback. If mutual respect is a given it also means it is easier to focus on the behaviors which are causing the problem. Your attitude towards the individual will affect how you approach them, so try to make it one where you demonstrate positive regard.

Step 4: Treat people differently

Remember to treat people differently. Try to adapt your approach to match the approach of the individual you are having the conversation with. Do they respond to a logical approach, or do they prefer to talk more broadly about the situation? Do they like to talk things out, or are they more reflective, preferring time to think things through.

You need to adapt to their approach and style in order to build rapport and understanding.   

You can’t always change other people, but what you can do is change your approach which in turn can help the others to change.

Step 5: Make it a two way process

Any good conversation is a dialogue not a monologue, so make sure there is a good balance in the conversation. Ask questions and encourage the other person to talk. The more you both understand about the situation the easier it will be to deal with.

It’s a sure sign that the meeting is not going well if you are doing all the talking. Try to aim for a 60:40 conversation, with the other person doing 60% of the talking.

Step 6: Be constructive

Build on the positives, provide feedback about what needs to improve and look for practical ideas and options to improve the situation. Building a way forward together will help to develop the commitment of the other person.

Step 7: Look forward

Rather than focusing on the past and what went wrong, look into the future, and focus on how to improve the situation. Asking questions such as: What can we do to improve the situation? How will we know we’ve made progress? Who can support you in achieving the change? are all questions which focus on improving performance in a positive way.

Step 8: Agree next steps

Agree the next steps and actions. It’s a good idea to ask the other person to summarize what they will do as this will demonstrate their understanding and commitment. It’s always important to set up some milestones for change and to follow up on how the situation progresses.

Personal skills check

This is a useful checklist to refer to before any conversation and to review your performance again after the conversation. Be honest in your self-appraisal and set yourself some goals to improve and enhance your skills. 

    Yes No  Sometimes
1   I encourage others to talk      
2 I listen carefully      
3 I always clarify (and summarize) key points      
4 I find it easy to see other people's point of view      
5 I flex my style to gain rapport with the other person      
6 I ask questions to explore and understand the issue      
7 I am aware of my non-verbal behavior and attentive to other peoples      
8 I prepare well for any conversation      
9 I always treat people with respect      
10 We agree actions and steps at the end of the conversation      


You have an important role in determining the outcome of any conversation you have with your team members. If handled well you can turn even the most difficult of conversations into a positive and productive experience for all concerned.

Pam Jones, Viki Holton and Angela Jowitt are the authors of How to Coach Your Team (Pearson, 2016)

If this is of interest to you, please take a look at our open program Performance through People.