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The 3 Pitfalls of Difficult Conversations – And How to Avoid Them

Maria Papacosta reveals why difficult conversations are hard, but they become even harder when avoided or poorly managed.

Difficult conversations are inevitable. It’s as simple as that. These challenging dialogues, whether they occur between team members, between managers and employees, or even with our families and friends, often revolve around managing difficult emotions. At their core, difficult conversations are not just about resolving conflicts or finding solutions; they are about understanding and addressing the underlying emotions that drive human behavior.

Photo: Maria Papacosta, co-founder of MSC Marketing Bureau | Courtesy
Photo: Maria Papacosta, co-founder of MSC Marketing Bureau | Courtesy

Emotions like disappointment and frustration, when left unacknowledged, don’t simply vanish; they linger beneath the surface. Ignoring these emotions doesn’t solve the problem; it compounds it, creating an atmosphere where tensions simmer and communication breaks down.

Wise individuals understand the importance of addressing these emotions head-on. They find ways to gently bring these feelings to the surface in a manner that respects everyone involved. This approach not only defuses potential conflicts but also fosters an environment of trust and open communication. It’s about creating a space where all voices can be heard, and all feelings validated.

Incorporating emotional intelligence into our approach is not a new concept, but its importance cannot be overstated. Emotional intelligence involves recognizing our own emotions and those of others, managing them effectively, and using emotional information to guide thinking and behavior. Those who excel in emotional intelligence are often better at managing difficult conversations because they can navigate the complex emotional landscapes that accompany these discussions.

While many individuals are adept at recognizing the importance of managing emotions, there are three common pitfalls that can undermine even the best intentions. These include:


Inadequate follow-up

After a difficult conversation, it’s common to feel that once the discussion is over, the issue is resolved. However, this is rarely the case. Without proper follow-up, unresolved feelings and misunderstandings can fester, leading to further complications and undermining the initial resolution.

Following up shows a continued commitment to resolving the issue and supporting everyone involved. By checking in after the initial conversation, you demonstrate that their concerns matter and that you’re dedicated to finding a lasting resolution. This ongoing support is crucial for maintaining trust and ensuring that the agreed-upon solutions are effectively implemented.


Present-focused solutions

In the heat of a difficult conversation, it’s easy to focus on immediate issues and short-term solutions. However, this approach often increases the difficulty of the situation and may only provide temporary relief. Instead, shifting the focus to the future helps to reduce the emotional intensity and fosters a more constructive dialogue.

Encourage others to look beyond the immediate problem by asking questions like, “What can we learn from this?” or “How can we prevent similar situations in the future?” This shift from blame to growth not only defuses the current tension but also helps in handling future challenges more effectively.

Especially in the workplace, framing the discussion around long-term goals and objectives can also help to depersonalize the issue, making it easier to address. By emphasizing the bigger picture and the shared objectives of the team or organization, leaders can help team members see beyond their immediate frustrations and work towards a common goal.


Narrow perspectives

It’s a natural human tendency to see things from our own perspective. However, this can constrain us from obtaining all the necessary information to process and communicate effectively. To manage difficult emotions successfully, it’s essential to try to see the situation from the other person’s perspective.

This involves considering their background, experiences, and motivations. Reframing the issue in this way helps to understand why they feel the way they do and what they hope to achieve. This empathetic approach not only aids in addressing their concerns but also helps in finding a mutually beneficial resolution.


Difficult conversations are hard, but they become even harder when avoided or poorly managed. By acknowledging and addressing emotions, following up diligently, focusing on future-oriented solutions, and broadening your perspective, you can navigate these challenging dialogues more effectively. Ultimately, this leads to a more open, trusting, and productive environment where all voices are heard and respected.


Maria Papacosta is the co-founder of MSC Marketing Bureau, an acclaimed Leadership Presence Coach and leading Personal Branding Strategist. She specializes in supporting executives and professional speakers to enhance their presence, develop authentic personal brands, and communicate with impact.


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