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Difficult Conversations

October 2017

There's a wealth of useful material about how to have difficult conversations and achieve mutually beneficial results. For instance, here are two practical articles that can be read online. Both were published this year.

"In A Difficult Conversation, Listen More than You Talk" by Dr Emma M Seppälä In A Difficult Conversation, Listen More than You Talk

"The Do's and Don'ts of Tough Conversations" by Sarah Clark The Do's and Don'ts of Tough Conversations

We've prepared a few points to give you the gist.

1. Be fully present. Dr Seppälä observes: "sometimes we are not present with the people in front of us. We're thinking about something that happened earlier or an article we just read or a phone conversation we just had. Our mind is elsewhere. The more we can bring our wandering mind to the present, the easier and more natural it becomes to connect, listen, and be open and authentic."

2. Be straightforward and fair. "Don't dance around the issue," Sarah Clark advises. Rather, "be as explicit as possible during difficult conversations". Address "the topic at hand, as well as the thought process behind it." Make a point of responding with compassion to the other person's needs.

3. Listen with an open mind. Have you noticed how many people listen in order to reply rather than to understand? "Be genuinely curious and interested in what is being said," Dr Seppälä suggests. "Pay attention to cues: does the person spend a lot of time on a particular point? Does she get more animated at specific junctures and less at others? Listening more and with curiosity not only helps you to better connect and understand what is being said, but also provides valuable input on how you may frame your response and navigate the conversation."

This brings to mind a helpful explanation of listening levels that Sarah Clark gave on another occasion, when interviewed by Sarah Hood: "look under the words to explore the implied meaning. […] listen to what is missing, listen to concerns that the [person] may have or what is important to them. […] listen for what they value. […] listen for what they want and need in order to fill that gap between what they have now and what they want. It’s a learned skill. You have to practise this over and over. It will open up new opportunities".1

4. Empathise. "Unless you open your mind to another's perspective, common ground can be tough to find," Dr Seppälä explains. "And finding common ground requires us to listen in order to really consider someone's position." Sarah Clark notes that when we work to put ourselves in other people's shoes, they are "more open to having a productive conversation."

5. Reflect. "After a draining conversation, take some time to consider what went well and what did not, as well as what you can do differently in the future," Sarah Clark counsels. "In conjunction with transparency, active listening and the right attitude, self-reflection will help you tackle difficult conversations head-on."

The topic of difficult conversations is vast. There's a growing number of excellent resources to help us hone our skills. If you're interested in going deeper, we can recommend a longer, more recent article by Dr Seppälä: "11 Keys to Mastering Difficult Conversations". 11 Keys to Mastering Difficult Conversations

If you're looking for a book, Life-Changing Conversations: 7 Strategies to Help You Talk about What Matters Most by Sarah Rozenthuler is well worth reading.


  1. Sarah Clark: "I Had to Get to a Point Where I Realized that It's OK to Be Vunerable" - interview by Sarah Hood. I Had to Get to a Point Where I Realized that It's OK to Be Vunerable ↩︎