Here are three rules on how to lead tough, unavoidable conversations

Two black silhouettes in deep discussion with a skyline in the background

To hear the expert or read the transcript from an expert in the field check out this 15-minute Ted Talk by Dr. Adar Cohen on “3 ways to lead, tough, unavoidable conversations”.  Having watched the video and read the transcript I wanted to share with you his three rules, but also add some additional information based on over 2,500 mediations and negotiations coupled with over 25 of years of management experience at all levels.  So here are Adar Cohen’s three rules:

  1. Move towards the conflict
  2. You don’t know anything, and even if you do, pretend you don’t
  3. Keep quiet

Now let’s look at all three of his rules from a slightly different business perspective.


Move towards the conflict


A natural inclination regarding a tough unavoidable conversation is to try and avoid it? Why? Things could go badly. No one likes frustration, anger, or failure.  So how do you move towards a conversation with someone that feels the same way and does not want to be there? First you need to bring in the right people. This is a first good and key step. Have the right people in the room.  

Bring in those with whom there may be the most conflict.

What if nobody wants to talk? Do your best to brainstorm ahead of time on what you can do to encourage others to speak up.  If no one does. Take a break. Think about ice breakers. In his Ted Talk Dr. Adar Cohen offered the following statement to a corrections officer who said nothing up until the break when he offered the following question, “Hey buddy, what do I gotta do to get you to pipe down in there?” That question brought forth laugher, a little conversation, and broke the ice.  Think about what you can do? Can you lead in with something that you have in common, something in a positive light to change the mindset?

As a mediator who mediates complex valuation issues, when I bring in the experts to work with each other as a starting item I

ask each expert to think of something positive that has happened in their life in the last 30 days and share

 that in three minutes or less.  This works. By having each person reflect on something positive and share that, the tension in the room and their role as an expert business valuer briefly disappears. They see themselves and the other expert as simply being human beings. That provides a way to break the tension in the room before moving forward with the reason they are there as experts.


You don’t know anything, and even if you do, pretend you don’t


I phrase this differently. Listen actively. This has been presented in various blogs and most recently with the acronym PASSED.  PASSED stands for


Ask open ended questions,


Suspend judgment,

Empathize, and

Don’t provide advice.

Picking up on how the IRS historically trained agents to investigate fraud they refer to it as “the Columbo Technique” form an old TV show simply called Columbo. In that series Lt. Columbo investigates a murder that a very smart killer thought of as the perfect crime. Throughout the show this clumsy, rumpled cop with a cigar in his mouth, acts stupid, and always seems to have to ask, “just one more thing”, and by the end of the show he solves the murder. What was his technique?  He acted like he didn’t know anything, and even when he did, he didn’t let the other party know. He acted as if he was ignorant. It worked. He was applying Dr. Adar Cohen’s technique even with his blue-collar background. He did not have a PhD, but he had an excellent emotional, listening, and conversational intelligence. You can apply the “Columbo” technique too. Now let’s look at the third element.


Keep quiet


In John Baker’s book The Asking Formula, the author as an overview has three rules to get what you want.

  1. Know what you want
  2. Ask for it
  3. Have three reasons why this is beneficial for them

Then be quiet.  Did you catch what to do after the third rule?  He suggests to simply keep quiet. Why?  Let them share with you what they are thinking. Answer their questions the way they would like to receive the answer.  Even if you know a lot and go on with your answer, what is they are really asking?  You do not need to pontificate and show them how smart you are. Rather, you need to simply address their concerns.

Don’t panic. Silence can be very powerful. Let the other party or the other parties decide how they would like to proceed.  You don’t need to interfere.

Once they begin to open and share what they see as the facts, the issues, the emotions around the issues, and their interests, you may very well have something.




These three rules are not linear.  Continue to move towards the conflict. The participants may even take you in a different direction with who should be involved with this tough conversation. Continue to actively listen. This is hard. You want to give advice. You want to state your opinion. To listen actively slow down. Remind yourself that you want to check your assumptions. Get and remain curious. Remind yourself to suspend your judgment. Silence can be your friend. Others may speak up. This can lead to b breakthroughs. Let the parties sort out what they want to say in their own words and encourage them by asking even more probative questions.

What have you learned from this commentary? Move closer to the conflict. Have an attitude that is positive to bring out the best. Be there to help. Listen actively. Ask probing questions as if you do not know anything. Again, even if you do know. The key is to use the Columbo technique and really listen. Then let the other party or parties speak. Be quiet. The urge to interject or to offer advice may be very strong. Hold that back. Silence is golden. Let the parties work through the commentary. When you take these actions, you will be able to work with others and lead tough, unavoidable, conversations.

About the author

Mike Gregory is a professional speaker, an author, and a mediator. You may contact Mike directly at and at (651) 633-5311. Mike has written 12 books (and co-authored two others) including his latest book, The Collaboration Effect: Overcoming Your Conflicts, and The Servant Manager, Business Valuations and the IRS, and Peaceful Resolutions that you may find helpful. [Michael Gregory, ASA, CVA, MBA, Qualified Mediator with the Minnesota Supreme Court]