How To Handle Difficult Business Conversations Without Losing Your Sanity

There are no easy ways and no shortcuts, but there are techniques we can employ to turn difficult conversations into effective ones.

We need to talk.

There are few phrases like the one above which can start our stomachs churning and send our pulses soaring. Difficult conversations are part of our daily lives and a part that no one enjoys. But handled well, even the hardest conversations can produce worthwhile outcomes for everyone.

What’s the most difficult conversation you’ve ever had to deal with? Were you happy with your own performance?

Executive coaching often requires distinct expertise to bring difficult conversations to a successful conclusion, sometimes when the situation has been left unresolved for far too long, and positions have become somewhat entrenched.

I, therefore, thought it might be useful to summarize some executive coaching tips for dealing with these challenging conversations. There are no easy ways and no shortcuts, but there are techniques we can employ to turn difficult conversations into effective ones.


1. Keep your emotions at bay

Take time to steady yourself and listen as objectively as you can. Difficult conversations can be hard for both sides, and there’s often good reason for that. By keeping your emotions out of the room, you’ll be able to understand what the other side is saying, and more importantly why they are saying it.

“It’s important to acknowledge your feelings while also recognizing that your emotions don’t have to control you,” says Amy Morin, the author of 13 Things Mentally Strong People Don’t Do. “If you wake up on the wrong side of the bed, you can take control of your mood and turn your day around. If you are angry, you can choose to calm yourself down.”

2. Just the facts

Keep the conversation moving by presenting any evidence you have and try not to place any personal emphasis on them. Keep the discussion rational and present everything in good old black and white. There’s no room for grey areas when tempers are frayed.

3. Look for the silver lining, but don’t let it blind you

In everything, you can discover a glimmer of positivity. When faced with confrontation we tend to focus on the negative. Try to find the good in situations you face. Morale is an important part of handling difficult conversations or “courageous conversations.”

However, cognitive reappraisal, “or looking for the bright side of unfortunate events, isn’t always a healthy way to cope.” A study, published in Psychological Science, suggests that “looking for the silver lining was only considered beneficial when the situation was out of someone’s control… For situations where you have control, the researchers recommend taking a different approach.”

“Basically, it’s beneficial to feel a little bad because of a negative event you caused or had direct control over. Without those negative emotions, you won’t learn from it and adapt so it doesn’t happen again. Seeing the silver lining is a good thing, but don’t let it blind you. Negative emotions are a great motivator.”

4. Know your limits

We all have hidden triggers which can ignite at a moment’s notice. If you know what sets you off, intercept yourself on your behalf and keep the conversation from being any more difficult than it needs to be. At the same time, we also have triggers which make us recoil or withdraw, so it’s better to be prepared and have a plan b, c and if need be even a plan d. If the dialogue breaks down because of something which could have been prevented, both sides lose. You owe it yourself to stay in the room and on your feet.

5. Listen without prejudice

If you can demonstrate the power of listening objectively, not only will you be able to see the issues with more clarity you will practice an evolved set of negotiating skills. Taking the lead to diffuse toxic discussions is something people remember. You may find, no matter how the debate goes, your willingness to listen may win you, future supporters.


Alan Potts is the CEO of CoachDirectors Limited. Alan’s background includes a spell in Nuclear Design Engineering, over 25 years of experience as a business leader in the travel industry and a constant, intimate relationship with all things ‘digital’ dating back to the very birth of the web.


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