How to Handle Difficult Conversations

Difficult conversations are a fact of life, not just in the office, but in our social lives too. Although we don’t like having them, they are a natural part of relationships, and can be very productive ways to unlock better relationships if you approach them in the right way.

In the workplace, this is particularly important for women in leadership roles, because they are more likely to be labelled as emotional, or mistakenly labelled as being over assertive by male colleagues (read more on that ).

Preparation is the key
You need to approach difficult conversations with a problem-solving mentality, which means first acknowledging your role in a difficult situation, because relationships are two-way dynamics and problems are never solely one person’s fault.

Secondly, you’ll need a few practical techniques to de-escalate tension. One way to do that is learn how to recognise the five common triggers that make difficult conversations harder to handle, commonly referred to as the SCARF model — developed by Dr. David Rock, a thought leader in human performance coaching — widely used by occupational psychologists and coaches.

SCARF: Status — Certainty — Autonomy — Relatedness — Fairness

Learning how to be mindful of these common sources of tension is vital. They can trigger your own defences, or you could trigger them in other people by accident.

Choosing to adapt your behaviour to avoid tension triggers in a difficult conversation is an important part of being an authentic communicator. This aspect of authenticity means self-reflection, i.e., have you ensured you’re not playing a part in creating tension? Are you applying critical thinking to problem and managing your emotions or stress? Are you checking your personal and professional values are aligned with what you’re planning to say?

Check your mindset
It’s important to remember a difficult conversation could happen when you’re not really in the right frame of mind to have a constructive discussion about a difficult topic. We all get tired, stressed, and distracted by other priorities at times. Getting into the right mindset to affect a positive outcome is vital. You need to be mindful of your own opinion and emotional state before a conversation begins.

Try checking your mood and outlook against these 5 criteria:

1. Forgiving: Are you being a dove or a hawk?

2. Future-focused: A year from now, will this matter?

3. Fair: Would a considerate 3rd party find you reasonable?

4. Factual: Are you basing your discussion on assumptions?

5. Free-thinking: Are you open to alternative perspectives?

Taking a moment to reset your outlook against these measures will help you recognise your personal narrative in the situation, e.g., how did you get here, and how are you going to resolve the situation.

Practical SCARF tips:

S is for Status
A large part of de-escalating tension in a conversation is recognising status, and making the other person feel valued by recognising their place in the workplace hierarchy, which is a significant driver of workplace behaviour. This means taking care not to embarrass or surprise people — which makes them feel isolated — and recognising their contributions. Don’t interrupt, (and ask them to do the same) and be clear about where your respective roles and responsibilities lie to help guide your contributions.

Helpful phrases:

“You have every right to ask that question, and before I answer it, another question that has is related to it is…”

“You make a good point, and I understand your position. Equally, I think in our respective roles, we should consider…”

C is for Certainty
When we are in familiar situations, our brains use fewer resources. If we have clearly defined problems to deal with, we deal with them more effectively. If we understand how processes should be applied, we are more efficient. A lack of clarity, and a lack of clear end-to-end process creates an unfamiliar situation, which causes stress. You can address this by providing a broad amount of information about your position, and manage expectations by checking that people understand the current stage in the process and next steps.

Helpful phrases:

Let me talk you through everything so you know exactly what I’m thinking about, and where I’m coming from…”

“What I want to avoid is people thinking x, what I want to establish is…”

A is for Autonomy
Usually there’s a target, or goal, or an outcome that lies behind the difficult conversation. In a leadership role, you have to establish what the intended outcomes are, but look to give people choices about how they play their part in achieving it. This is all about balancing the needs of individuals to feel a genuine sense of ownership over their work (and avoid feeling over controlled) with the broader needs of the group to hit their target.

Helpful phrases:

I encourage you all to read everything and make your own decisions…”

“People will want to respond in different ways, so we have made allowances for this…”

R is for Relatedness
Relatedness is all about psychological safety. People naturally feel more inclined to collaborate when they feel safe, which means avoiding any sense that the conversation isn’t a two-way dialogue. Be clear about respecting the other party, remind them that you have shared goals, and create a safe space where they can say what they need to say and feel listened to, and responded to constructively.

Helpful phrases:

“There are always two sides to a story, and I would really like to hear yours…”

“Given your experience, and the time we’ve worked together, your views are important…”

F is for Fairness
Our brains go into defensive mode if things feel unfair. Establishing a clear set of ground rules at the outset of the conversation (like taking turns to speak, agreeing not to interrupt etc.) and sticking to them, will go a long way to establishing a productive dialogue. Also, it is critical that any commitments that are made during the conversation are honoured afterwards, to build trust with the other person.

Helpful Phrases
“You deserve a full explanation of our thinking as a business…”

“We have worked hard to make this as equitable and even-handed as we can…”

Make a difficult conversation the start of a better relationship
In many respects, the SCARF approach is a way of avoiding behaviours that cause tension by making us appear controlling, dismissive or confrontational in the way we interact. It also helps people to address real issues at hand and make progress, rather than mask their true opinions, avoid sensitive subjects or withdraw from the conversation and leave things unresolved.

After a difficult conversation, remember to follow-up by checking-in with the other person a week later, to see how they are feeling now some time has elapsed. Re-affirm the outcomes and next steps, and then… it’s time move on. You have agreed a solution, now you have to fully engage with it and not look for problems. The best way to do that is to ensure you have positive, thoughtful, authentic ongoing communication with the other person.

A difficult conversation, if handled correctly, can prove to be a useful step in building a stronger team. Remember, the goal of a difficult conversation is the same as any conversation, it’s an exchange of information — and problem solving — to build trust and improve performance.