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Mastering Difficult Conversations

March 2, 2024

Effective leadership hinges on the ability to navigate difficult conversations with grace and proficiency. While nobody enjoys difficult conversations, they can provide opportunities for growth and progress within teams and organizations when handled correctly. Leaders who can adeptly engage in tough discussions foster a culture of transparency, trust, and collaboration. By addressing issues head-on, they prevent unresolved conflicts from festering and potentially derailing projects or relationships.

A recent article on outlines five steps to navigating difficult conversations:
  1. Seek first to understand, then to be understood. This is a great reminder to listen first, then talk. The principle of “Seek first to understand, then to be understood” underscores the importance of active listening and empathy in communication. By genuinely seeking to understand the perspectives and concerns of others before expressing our own, we foster trust and mutual respect. This approach cultivates meaningful dialogue, encourages collaboration, and lays the groundwork for effective problem-solving and relationship-building.
  2. Listen with intention. This often takes a little work – it requires truly listening versus thinking about what you are going to say next. If you listen carefully, it might change what you were going to say.
  3. Clarify what you heard. Repeat back what you understand the other person to be saying. This will ensure you understand them correctly and also let them know you heard and understand their point of view.
  4. Have a structured response. The article recommends breaking down your response into three areas:
    • PREP: State your Position, provide Reasons, share Evidence, and then restate your Position.
    • SOS: Restate the Situation, provide Options, then share your Solution from those options.
    • PPF: Share how this was handled in the Past, what you are doing in the Present, and where you see things in the Future.
  1. Agree on next steps. Once the conversation concludes, ensure consensus on the next steps—clarify responsibilities, expected outcomes, and assign tasks accordingly. Subsequently, provide all involved parties with a written summary detailing agreements reached and set any necessary calendar reminders for future engagements to maintain alignment and accountability.

It’s crucial for leaders to recognize the emotional component of difficult conversations. Emotions can run high during such discussions, and acknowledging and validating these feelings can facilitate a more productive dialogue. Leaders should create a safe space where individuals feel comfortable expressing their emotions without fear of judgment. This empathetic approach fosters trust and strengthens relationships, paving the way for more open and honest communication.

Self-awareness is key to effectively navigating difficult conversations. Leaders must continuously reflect on their own communication styles and be open to feedback. Leaders should strive to identify any biases, assumptions, or triggers that may hinder productive communication and actively work to address them. By demonstrating a willingness to learn and grow, leaders set a positive example for their team members and contribute to a culture of continuous improvement and development.

Work on building relationships before difficult times arrive so that when you do have a difficult conversation, you have a solid base established. In emotionally charged situations, a strong relationship between the involved parties often facilitates a more constructive conversation.

How do you prepare for difficult conversations? Email me at

ASE offers training in this area and has a virtual course being held on March 19th: Dealing with Difficult Behavior. It arms managers with skills and diplomacy techniques to use in their day-to-day interactions with others and when dealing with difficult behavior or situations. Learn more or register here.


By Mary E. Corrado, President & CEO, courtesy of SBAM-approved partner, ASE.

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