How to master difficult conversations

Hard conversations are hardly fun. Instead, they’re often uncomfortable, and the outcomes can be unpredictable. When a situation can give way to the potential disappointment of a client or employee, a lot of things can happen. Many people find hard conversations so awkward they try and avoid them altogether.

However, being perceptive to the emotions and communication styles of others and knowing how to effectively communicate yourself will give you a leg up. And while difficult conversations are unavoidable from time to time, if you approach them correctly they can be constructive.

Here are a few tips to help you along your way.

Take your time

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People deal with confrontation or difficult conversations differently. Some prefer to rush in (all the better to get it over with), others like to take a combative approach, and still others prefer to avoid hard conversations for as long as possible (which unfortunately allows issues to fester).

The best approach, however, is to take your time and compose yourself. Don’t go so far as to script what you’ll say (doing so could remove any sense of sincerity), but consider the potential outcomes beforehand. Stay calm and collected, taking deep breaths if necessary.

Even within the interaction, pace yourself. You don’t want to just unload all of your bad news on the other person. Rushing to unload everything is likely to get you worked up, which could agitate the other person as well. A slower pace will allow you to stay composed and think about your responses throughout the conversation, bettering the chances of everyone staying on an even keel.


Be sure to listen as well as speak. It’s important to be receptive, taking into consideration what the other person has to say. Sometimes, simply being willing to hear someone out and acknowledge his feelings is enough to show you genuinely care about him and the situation. When communication flows freely both ways, in a constructive manner, the outcome is likely to be better for everyone.

Show empathy

It’s also important to show understanding and compassion, which demonstrates good will and good intentions. Remember, empathy is not the same as sympathy. You don’t have to agree with the other person’s perspective to be empathetic.

Have a cooperative spirit

Understanding leads to a willingness to work with the other party. Maybe you’re breaking bad news to a client about a project. Or perhaps you’re giving someone a bad performance review. Whatever the circumstances, it’s good to display your willingness to do what you can to improve things.

For example, when delivering that bad review, proactively offer advice and assistance to help the employee do better in the future.

Keep in mind that despite the not-so-fun conversation you’re having at the moment, you’d probably like to maintain good relationships with this individual.

Consider the takeaways

All interactions provide lessons for growth. Difficult conversation in particular can be very telling about you and the other party. Reflecting on your approach and reactions will help you better manage difficult conversations in the future.

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