How to have Difficult Conversations: Five Key Tips for Managing them Successfully

If you work long enough and achieve a certain amount of seniority then it is almost inevitable that you will need to discipline somebody who reports to you.

If you work in engagement then it is almost inevitable that you will need to have a conversation with somebody who is angry about your project.

If you work in communications then one day it is highly likely that you will have an angry journalist talk to you about why your client is being difficult and not delivering on the story that they want. It’s almost definitely going to happen. But rather than fear it there are some things you can do that may help you to manage tough conversations.


  1. Take a deep breath: How do you get past the panic of the confrontation and avoid the lizard brain takeover, sometimes also called the flight or fight mechanism? You take a breath. Not just any breath but a slow, deep one. This breaks the cycle and gives you some space to think clearly.
  2. Truly listen: Active listening isn’t easy but just think about this mantra – when you are listening, it’s not a time to re-load and think of your next witty response. Nobody really cares if you “win” the argument. Rather make sure you are really hearing what the other person means, not just what you think they are saying.
  3. Be present: Looking at your watch during a conversation implies you have better things to do. It However, if you are giving off cues that you would rather be somewhere else, you won’t be getting a better understanding of the situation.
  4. Acknowledge their feelings and mean it: It’s okay to say you are sorry somebody is upset. That’s not establishing right or wrong, just showing some empathy.
  5. Come up with an agreed action plan and follow up: Even if that action plan is you will meet again and talk more. You need to ensure that any discussion ends with a plan.