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Navigating Difficult Conversations

by | Oct 2, 2023 | Coaching culture, Emotional intelligence, Empathy, Leadership, Social connection, Teams, Uncategorized


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Navigating Difficult Conversations

When I’m coaching senior leaders, I often ask them what the hardest part of their job is, and they’ll mostly tell me that it’s having those difficult conversations with their colleagues. I’ve also coached a lot of senior doctors, who, of course, deliver difficult news to patients often, but still can’t bring themselves to tell a colleague that they were rude to someone else in the team. It’s such an uncomfortable place for us to go: to say something that we believe might upset another person. 

There’s something about doing this at work that feels particularly hard. The challenge is that research on the most effective leadership teams shows that when they have the courage to disagree with each other, to say difficult things, to offer feedback, they are more successful. They outperform other teams that hold back. This is even when people are giving feedback that they’re not sure it will be gratefully received. So it’s good for our organizations, and I also think it’s good for us as individuals. 

I think we deserve to be given an honest message. I want to know from people whether I’m doing things well, or if I’m upsetting them, or if I’m not delivering something to a good enough standard. I want to be told how I can improve. It serves all of us and our organizations to learn to give feedback to people. By learning to share difficult messages and start conversations we might encounter a bit of conflict, but in the context of being honest with each other and the wider good of the organization. Having skills to navigate this sets up less conflict and more connection. This is vital to truly effective leadership. 

Let me start, though, by saying that I’m not really great on the receiving end of this feedback. I think we should do it, I think we should start these difficult conversations. But for me, it’s actually been something I’ve really struggled with being on the receiving end of, possibly because my confidence was low for so many years. I learned to take feedback personally. I wasn’t seeing it as a gift, which it ultimately is. As a people pleaser, I also avoided giving difficult news to other people. So I’ve had to learn about not being defensive when people offer me insights and feedback, particularly in our business where we’re wanting to constantly improve things. This focus on continual improvement can mean people saying to me that something that I did didn’t work, with the intention to improve. But I think that we can learn to do this better. We can get better at offering those insights and that feedback and doing it in a way that doesn’t trigger each other. I think I’ve gotten better at receiving feedback, not always, and I hope I’ve gotten better at offering helpful feedback to people. I’m going to share with you here a little bit about how I see this.

To start from a neuroscience perspective, I’ve heard it said that saying to somebody “can I give you some feedback?” can trigger fight, flight, freeze, or fawn. It actually causes a kind of instinctive defensiveness in us and so learning to do this well so that we can help people not to have that defensive reaction and to be able to learn and grow from it is really important because our ability to do this well is literally impacting people’s physiology. We’re helping both ourselves and others by learning to do it well. 

Another thing I’ve learned is that some people really welcome me sharing things with them, even though I perceive them as difficult. So because we all have a different approach to this, even though I’m worried about saying to somebody: “when you did that piece of work the other day, there were actually a few places that could be improved,” because I’m nervous about them receiving it badly because that’s how I might receive it, but they might be really deeply grateful. They might say, “thank you. That’s so helpful. I really want to learn how to do this better.” So here are some of the approaches I’ve learnt. It doesn’t mean I don’t find it difficult sometimes or I don’t worry about it. But I do choose to do it because I’m honouring truth and I’m honouring a growth mindset. 

Firstly let’s define what we mean by a ‘difficult conversation’. It can be a few things including giving feedback to people or starting a conversation where you think there might be a disagreement or cause conflict, and yet you know that you need to bring up this topic. You may need to share a different way of doing something that you think the organization needs to follow. It can also simply be asking a colleague how they are, when you can see they’re upset. Or sometimes it’s about acknowledging that we’ve made a mistake and we need to have a difficult conversation to own up for that. And of course, hopefully we don’t have to do this very often in our career, there are really tough conversations in organisations about times where we need to. to tell somebody that there isn’t a future for them in the company. 

In all of these situations, because we find it so hard, a lot of things get in our way from doing it. 

  • The one I come across most often is that we procrastinate, we put it off. We kind of hope that if we don’t do it now, it will go away and we won’t have to do it in the future. 
  • Another thing we do is we don’t tell the full truth. So we tell little lies really. We give a small example of what might be but we don’t help the person to understand the situation. 
  • We change the subject, we avoid it or when we do find the courage we talk quickly and we really try and get it over and done with and we do it with without precision. We don’t give examples, and we don’t help the situation. 

None of this is helping because all of these things are avoiding something that’s difficult for us. And we know that the longer we avoid things, we’re not helping the situation. We’re not moving forward. 


A coaching approach

So, for me, the starting point in learning to do this well is by thinking about taking a coaching approach. So, of course, I would say that, but I think that if we approach all difficult conversations with listening, with curiosity, with questioning and with empathy, it can really help us. We can share our understanding of a situation and check in with our colleague: how they see it. We can reflect back our understanding and check again. We can come with empathy and with a growth mindset, all within a coaching approach. All of this is about an aim to help the situation to be a moment of growth, to move towards fresh thinking and new action. When we’re using a coaching approach, we do this. So we spend very little time in the past in coaching and more time in the future, and the same is true here. We’re wanting to look at how we can help move forward to positive action rather than wallowing in what happened. We start coming into these conversations by thinking about how we can embody a coaching approach in the conversation. 



The next thing we can do is put a lot of work into preparation, because if we’re approaching the situation thoughtfully, then we want to think about the best way to do it. When we come into it with a growth mindset, we prepare believing that everything has a chance for learning and growth. Both for me in learning to have these difficult conversations and also for my colleague in their situation. Before we even get into the conversation, we can be empathic. We can stand in their shoes and feel into how they might see the situation. We can connect with their experience. And maybe the possible things that have brought the situation about, how did it come to be here? Even in job losses, we can approach this with empathy – we can really feel into what might be going on for them. Part of this preparing and feeling into the other is also thinking about how likely the other person is to know already or be unsurprised about the feedback when they get it. 

Applying the Johari Window

Many of you will be familiar with the Johari window developed by Joe and Harry, and I’ve shared this model on a previous podcast episode on receiving feedback, but I think it’s worth repeating it here. What they said was that there are four quadrants that particularly relate to feedback. Each of these quadrants relates how much I share of myself to the world and how much I keep private.

The first quadrant is what we would call the “public domain”: these are things I know about myself and things that you know about me. So, for example, it’s pretty clear to everyone who works with me that I’m an extrovert, and that I have poor attention to detail. So if you point out a mistake in a slide, even though, with my natural defensiveness it might sting, I know that it’s true. I know I’m not good at that area. So when you give me feedback in that area, it’s not surprising to me. It’s like “oh, yeah. Okay, let me fix it. Or can you fix it? Or can somebody help me? Because I’ve clearly got this wrong.”

Then we’ve got a ‘private domain’. These are things that we know about ourselves that we haven’t necessarily shared with other people, for example, when I suffered with low confidence before, I wouldn’t necessarily want other people to know that. People close to me knew, but I wouldn’t want, for example, a senior leader in an organization to know that. So, if somebody gives me feedback there, I will be a bit surprised and probably a bit startled because I now know that somebody’s noticed something about me that I’m trying to keep private. I may even feel embarrassed because I thought I was hiding that side of me. I don’t want you to see it.

The third quadrant is our ‘blind spots’. These are things that others are seeing about us that we’re not seeing, and this is the trickiest place, I think, to give feedback because it is the place that’s the hardest for the person receiving it. Their first instinct, my first instinct, is to reject it and say, “that can’t possibly be true, that’s not me”. I’ve talked before about when my friend Daryl told me I was a perfectionist and I said, “no, I’m not a perfectionist”. And of course, I’ve spent the last 15 years seeing perfectionism everywhere I go in the way I work and in my style. So if we think that the person is not seeing this about themselves, then we may have to be cautious and also allow time for them to metabolize it. An example that comes to mind is when I’ve helped people prepare to give feedback to somebody who didn’t realize that they were coming across as patronizing and rude. They didn’t know that they were. It was important they heard the feedback, but it was going to be difficult for that person because they weren’t seeing it in themselves.

The last of the four quadrants is about our ‘subconscious’ or ‘unconscious’. We won’t be giving feedback to people here because it’s really hidden from all of us and less likely to be there. It will be impacting some of the other areas but we won’t know it. So as we go into feedback we’re going to empathize with the person, we’re going to think about:

  • Where is this feedback likely to be? 
  • Is it in the public space? 
  • Do they already know about it? 
  • Is it private? 
  • Are they likely to feel a bit embarrassed? 
  • Is it a blind spot? 
  • How can I help them slowly see with evidence? 


Once you’ve lent into that, you can also do a bit more preparation about yourself. There’s a really good opportunity here about thinking about how you feel about the situation and how you feel about raising the conversation. Maybe you’re feeling nervous about actually bringing up the conversation and maybe you’re feeling angry about what happened or maybe you’re feeling let down or disappointed. It’s so important to name those feelings so that they don’t rule us in the conversation. So when we go into the conversation, we can be as calm as possible. We can also be thinking about:

  • Why is it important to us? 
  • What matters for us in bringing this up? 
  • And maybe which of our values are aligned with us raising the situation. 
  • And it’s always good to ask, what did I contribute to the situation? Was there any part I played in this? And many times there won’t be, but sometimes it may be that somebody didn’t deliver well enough on a job and maybe if I was delegating the job, I could have done a better job at delegation. 


Mastering SBI 

The next part of preparation is just thinking about how I am going to talk to the person and I love the model from the Center for Creative Leadership: Situation Behavior Impact (SBI). If I’m preparing for a situation, I’m going to think about an overview of the situation, the behavior that happened, and the impact of this behavior. I’m not going to be thinking about what I want the person to do in the future because we’re going to co-create that together. This is really about explaining what happened. So, for example, let’s take something that people may encounter often: timekeeping. That’s the situation. “On three times last week, you arrived in an hour late for work.” That’s the behavior: “this means that the rest of the team are picking up your calls and covering for you.” And you can see that that’s really clear: I’ve given an overview, I’ve described exactly what’s happening and I’m talking about the impact on others or me or on the work because that also is helpful for a person to see things in context. It makes it less personal. You can prepare by writing that out if you think that will be helpful, and even saying it out loud so that you know you’re ready for the situation. 


Feed Forward

Another piece of preparation links to something that Marshall Goldsmith created called Feed Forward. So we’ve talked already a lot here about feedback, and feedback is often past-focused, but his suggestion is that we aim to move to future focused as much as we can as quickly as possible. So if we think about the SBI model, we will explain the situation. The behavior, the impact, maybe check for understanding, have a conversation about how the person saw it, and then really quickly move into: “so what can we do in the future for this? Let’s not wallow in the past, let’s move into the future.” 



Finally for preparation, think about going into the conversation with an open mind, looking for win-win if possible and remember to see the person as a human. They’re a person and something just didn’t go right and or something difficult has happened and we need to move beyond it. Even if you’re going in to raise something that you think is going to create conflict and set you up at odds with each other, you can do that in a way that means that you see each other as humans. 


The conversation

Going into the conversation, I prefer to take a quite blunt, direct approach to this. I would suggest going in and saying, “I’d like to talk to you about something, and I’d like to have a conversation about how we can find a way forward.” There it is: I don’t mess around, I say “let’s talk about it.” Then I will share the situation, behavior, feedback, and again stress that we can look for a way to move forward. And then I move to coaching. So then I’m asking them: how do you see the situation?” 

  • “What else might have been going on?” 
  • “What was happening in your context?” 
  • “Here’s what I think you’re saying to me.”

 I’m going to reflect back, and then we can have a discussion and ask the questions: 

  • “So how could we do this in the future?” 
  • “How could we come to an agreement?” 
  • If we’re at disagreement, “how do we move forward into the future?”


Make sure you summarize at the end and leave the person feeling okay, that you have some way forward. Also agree to come back in a few days to pick up the conversation. If the person is particularly upset, you can check in with them. Maybe they want more time before they want to carry on talking and, if you do that, if you pause the conversation or you say, okay, let’s come back to it, make sure you do come back to the conversation and come back to it as soon as possible. Either give them a choice and say, “shall we meet again this afternoon?” Or say to them, “let’s catch up this afternoon or tomorrow.” And then after the conversation, follow up and book the time to talk again. 


If you’re having this conversation virtually, Try and make sure you’re both on camera, and before the conversation, ensure the person is in a confidential setting. If we’re doing these things in the office, we always find somewhere quiet to do it, but, if it’s on Zoom or Teams, then it may be that we don’t know that there’s another person sitting in the room with the person, with this individual, and we want to help them to be in a private confidential space. 


I think that we can all learn to get better at this and to learn to be more honest with each other and to learn to see that when we do this, we’re actually helping people. We’re helping people to improve. So, a few final tips on how to do this well:

  • Don’t forget to breathe when you’re in the conversation. you’ll possibly be feeling a bit nervous, so be aware of it, slow down your breathing. This will also help the other person who may also be feeling nervous, and so just by calming your breathing down a little bit will help to create more calm in the situation. 
  • It’s good practice to use “I” statements wherever possible. So we move from blame focused to things like: “I noticed the impact on your colleagues when you shouted”. 
  • And wherever possible, use examples and evidence. There’s times when you can’t, but if at all possible, wait so that you can share practical examples. Because if somebody receives feedback that says: “yeah, you’re just not very effective in meetings”, they’re going to want to say, “can you tell me what that means? What are the examples?” They have a right to evidence based feedback. 
  • And finally, always use this as a learning opportunity for you. Think about yourself. What is it about you that maybe created the situation? How have you done in giving the feedback? And how can you help to create a learning environment and a growth culture moving forward?


Good luck with those difficult conversations and please let us know how they go!

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