Ten tips to overcome difficult conversations

Puzzle pieces for a difficult puzzle

Have you been in a conflict or dispute with someone else and felt you were 100% right and that they were 100% wrong? Did it ever occur to you that, just maybe you were not 100% right. The easy decisions in life are truly yes-no decisions. However, the more difficult decisions and controversies tend to have shades of gray associated with them. You may perceive the other party as being difficult and you may be trying to determine how to deal with difficult people. This commentary explores steps you can take when you are in a strong disagreement with someone else. Instead of digging in and reinforcing your position, explore these ten tips to overcome difficult conversations.


The need to be right


Our brain likes to have a sense of control, predictability, and progress. When these are threatened this causes the stress response to act on our behalf. You appreciate movies, TV shows, YouTube videos, books, computer games, and other sources that reinforce for you that the good guys win, and the bad guys lose.

Simple reinforcement feels good because it reduces the stress response.

Wouldn’t that be nice if everything were that way? Unfortunately, that is not the way it is all the time. How do others try to reinforce this in you?


This is how others manipulate you


Knowing this advertising, politicians, and others work to reinforce why their product or message stirs up positive images for the source and negative images of the competitor or other perspective. One thing you can do to help reduce this impact on your brain is to realize this is happening and to physically turn off the source. You can mute your TV, go to another channel, turn off the news story, turn off  the source completely, or divert yourself in another way. However, since

your brain likes to be right if the source is reinforcing what you want to see or hear even though it may be making you angry, your brain covets the emotion.

So, what can you do when you are interacting with another person and the same emotion is being triggered?


This is what you can do


Acknowledge that you are being triggered. Ask yourself why you are being triggered. This may allow you to stay focused. Realize you are not out to change beliefs, rather you want to find common values and things you have in common. Focus on values not beliefs. When you have strong differences with the other party consider these ten tips to help you overcome a difficult conversation with someone else.

  1. Practice patience. Everyone likes closure, to be right, and to win. This is not about winning. This is about understanding and addressing a difficult conversation. Center yourself before the difficult conversation with prayer, meditation, reflection, yoga or what works for you.
  2. Focus on being curious and remaining flexible. Avoid becoming entrenched in your position at all costs. This will not promote the conversation. A positive attitude towards remaining calm, confident yet humble, and competent on what you are asking and saying by being flexible will help.
  3. Acknowledge good points from the other perspective. What can you agree about relative to this difficult conversation and other elements too? There are always things that you both can agree on. How about the nice day, vacation, children, grandchildren, pets, or anything you may have in common.
  4. Ask yourself what you can do to make your perspective more understandable. Think about where the other party is coming from. How can you humbly educate the other party the way they want to be educated? Is it with an emotional tie in with you? Is it with facts and figures? Is it by building a better relationship?
  5. Ask yourself what you can do make the other perspective more understandable for you. The other party is presenting the information given their perspective. Try to put yourself in their shoes. Could you ask questions or offer insights that may help you understand their perspective better? How could you dig deeper looking for areas of commonality?
  6. Listen actively more than usually do. Listening actively means to paraphrase, ask open ended questions, summarize, and empathize with the other person. Make it a point to listen longer. Do not interrupt. Suspend judgment. Do not offer advice. Ensure that you fully understand where the other party is coming from without offering advice on your opinion.
  7. Offer your perspective in sound bites. That is only provide brief commentary on your major points to allow the other party to ask you questions. This will allow the other party to dive deeper into where you are coming from and help promote the conversation.
  8. Admit with what you do not  know. When you don’t know simply admit that you don’t know by saying “I don’t know.”  Be honest with what you do or do not know helps instill trust by being transparent with the other party.
  9. Step back when your actions are not working. Instead of continuing down a path that is counterproductive, consider that you may be overthinking your commentary. Perhaps stepping back and thinking of another way to present your commentary that would be understandable to the other party may help.
  10. Take a break. Step back. Hit the reset button. Have a drink of water. Take a time out. Go for a walk. Do something to break up the current situation. Determine when might be a good time to resume? After a short 5 to 15 minutes break? On another day? At some point further along so that one or both sides can do more homework and/or reflect on what has been offered so far?

Consider these ten tips for having a difficult conversation. This is not all inclusive, but hopefully these tips may help you with a difficult conversation. You may want to save this or print this out and take it with you when you are going to have a difficult conversation. Keep it as a reference to look at and help you focus on the tips that make the most sense to you. In some instances, you may want to consider bringing in a  mediator to help facilitate the conversation. A qualified mediator could help both parties when the parties cannot find a way to have a difficult conversation on their own. I want to thank The Greater Good Science Center for providing this article that motivated me to write this bog.

About the author

Mike Gregory is a professional speaker, an author, and a mediator. You may contact Mike directly at mg@mikegreg.com 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]