Managing Difficult Conversations

Managing Difficult Conversations

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Managing Difficult Conversations

In this article from the Harvard Law School Program on Negotiation blog written by the program staff entitled, “Managing Difficult Conversations: Achieving Objectives with Backmapping Negotiating Strategies” the authors offer ideas on how to partner with others to address difficult conversations.  This sounds complicated, but in reality in concept it is quite simple.  It involves exploring who else has influence and an interest in what you would like to propose, and working with them to jointly pursue an objective.  The objective may be with a third party that does not want to interact with you or care to discuss the objective or any issue with you.   It can be very difficult to negotiate with someone that refuses to interact with you.

This gives rise to the need to develop a relationship with others to assist you with your intentions.   I want to offer you a story as an example of such an encounter and how five of us overcame a barrier with our executive leadership.   The executive leadership was new.  The executive leadership wanted to make a statement of who was boss and that we needed to follow her direction.  Unfortunately she did not understand several elements of reality, and that what she indicated we needed to do could not be implemented given other complications.  In short, the alternative had not been fully vented or thought through and if implemented as proposed could cause real problems.  What do you do?

In the first session of a two day meeting the new executive told us of her initiative and there was push back by some of the 11 mid-level managers. It was clear she really did not want feedback.   She took it as an attack on her leadership to question or propose changes to her idea.  The next day we were going to be spending most of the day determining how to carry out the initiative in our business unit.   This executive was quite the partier after work and typically went out with three of the mid-level managers for an evening of fun.  They had a very good working relationship with her.

The mid-level managers met after the meeting and proposed together that these three mid-level managers and two others that had strong influential power might be able to influence her positively on two fronts.  One was for the three mid-level managers to further bond with her that evening at dinner and drinks.  The second was to strategically place these five mid-level managers around the circle the next morning and ease into the discussion using various forms of questioning and suggestions related to the implementation.   The questions asked, the order of the questioning and the suggestions by the key participants allowed the executive to save face and yet have the executive become enlightened to concerns.   The executive previously had not wanted to learn of these concerns.  

It took some time.  We had to demonstrate that we were indeed team players.  We had to show that our intention was to make the executive successful and the initiative successful.  However, it also meant that we had to address a number of concerns going forward.   There were some bumps along the way, but in the end the executive saw the light and made some changes to avert what could have been a disaster. 

We have all been there.  Sometimes these types of initiatives result in what I refer to as 180 degree charges six months later.  That is a full reversal of a bad decision.   Typically the reversal is simply letting the initiative die.  By taking a proactive approach with partners deemed trustworthy, friendly, and confidants of the other party into the mix it may be possible to influence the decision maker to consider and to actually make positive changes relating to the initiative.


·         Identifying who could assist you;

·         Determine if the effort is worth it in terms of your time and effort;

·         Knowing who has influence and would be willing to assist you;

·         Determine how you may want to proceed to try and influence the other party.

The commentary above does not always work, but it often works when thought out, practiced and carried out by those truly committed to the process.  The participants need to be flexible and quick to offer positive constructive commentary in a professional manner without attacking or threatening the other party.

As a matter of reference I also offer a previous commentary for your consideration on How to Get Along with Difficult People.  

Michael Gregory is an expert in conflict resolution dedicated to making thought-leading entrepreneurs and executives more successful. Michael’s books, The Servant Manager: 203 tips from the best places to work in America and Peaceful Resolutions: A 60-step illustrated guide to conflict resolution are available at   Free resources are available online at Check out the blog.  Contact Mike directly at or call (651) 633-5311. 

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]