Many leaders, whether if they are new or seasoned, have difficulties with tough conversations. According to a workplace survey by Bravely, 70% of employees are avoiding tough conversations with either their boss, colleague or direct reports. What leaders need to realize is the longer they wait to have these conversations, the more emotionally charged they will likely become. The first step in handling difficult conversations successfully is having the courage to have them. Once you are committed to act, the following advice will help produce more favorable outcomes.


You should prepare for these conversations by having the desire to understand their perspective and provide them with opportunities to express their views or thoughts. You want to have a curious, open attitude and avoid making assumptions. It is also important for you to identify whether this conversation will trigger certain emotions for you. Having this self-awareness and self-regulation from the start will help you keep a level head and calm demeanor during the conversation.


It is critical that you listen to understand their issues. Do your best not to be judgmental or critical during the conversation. This will only raise the other person’s defense mechanisms and likely yield a less desirable outcome. IMS educator Dr. Rick Brinkman, best-selling co-author of Dealing with People You Can’t Stand: How to Bring Out the Best in People at Their Worst, identifies six active listening steps that should be used in these conversations.

  • Use body language gestures to show you are listening. Head nods or making appropriate sounds, give the receiver feedback that you are listening.
  • Use blending strategically. Blending happens through body and facial expressions, along with vocal volume and tone. For example, if they are moving closer to you, then you would move closer to them.
  • Repeat back the actual words they are saying.
  • Clarify with them if you are confused on a point.
  • Summarize back to them what you heard.
  • Ask the person if they feel understood or if there is anything else.


In a recent podcast episode on March 16, IMS Educator Neil Staker, provided some verbal and behavioral signs indicating escalating conflict.  

  • Lack of questions. People are focused on explaining their own ideas rather than understanding others.
  • Controlling language. Listen for an increase in using phrases like, “It’s clear that,” “Everyone knows,” “You’re not really thinking of doing X,” “It’s imperative that.”
  • Absolutes. Hearing phrases like, “That never works,” or “You always say that,” are signs of escalation.
  • Labels. Typically, people will use labels to undermine ideas first. “That’s an optimistic budget.” And then escalate to undermining people. “You’re not foolish enough to believe those estimates, are you?”
  • Ultimatums, sarcasm and threats. Now it’s open warfare.

The earlier you notice these escalating behaviors and language, the easier it is to fix because the conflict hasn’t gotten personal and mean yet. Once you see it, you can change course by pointing out what’s happening, apologizing if appropriate, and committing to work together.

By following the advice of preparing for these tough conversations, listening attentively, and noticing the signs of escalating conflict, you will be more successful in handling difficult conversations.  Remember, sometimes the most important conversations to have are the most difficult to begin.

To learn more about Rick Brinkman’s work please view our December 21st blog on dealing with difficult people in your life.


Charles Good is the president of The Institute for Management Studies, which provides transformational learning experiences that drive behavioral change and develop exceptional leaders. Charles is an innovative and resourceful leader who specializes in bringing people together to develop creative organizational and talent strategies that enable business results. His areas of expertise include assessing organizational skill gaps and leading the design, creation and delivery of high impact, innovative learning solutions that achieve business goals.


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