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Employee Wellness

10 Tips For Managing Difficult Conversations

How to handle heated conversations at work and with loved ones without breaking the relationship,

Difficult conversations are inevitable in human life. You have to deliver bad news, call someone out for saying something offensive, or have opposing thoughts about polarizing issues. Most of us tend to shy away from engaging in tough dialogues because we are afraid the other party will get sad, mad, or — in the case of friends and loved ones — not want to be friends or love us anymore. But keeping quiet can lead to a build-up of resentment that will possibly boil over into an explosive confrontation the next time around, or result in improper behaviors remaining unchanged. 

“We tend to view difficult conversations as a personal attack, a power struggle that becomes a win-lose situation,” says Salma Sakr, Chief Growth Officer of MindNation. “But if we treated them as an opportunity to grow both personally and professionally, to increase understanding, and to achieve goals, then we can address the situation sooner and with more ease.”

“Falling to engage in difficult conversations with loved ones does the relationship a disservice.”

Danah Gutierrez , Author and R&R.mp3 Podcast Host

For Danah Gutierrez, author and podcast host, falling to engage in difficult conversations with loved ones does the relationship a disservice. “You end up living in this illusion that everything is fine between the two of you, but it’s only fine on the surface. Deep down, something sinister is brewing, which is not good for the relationship.”

While there is no one way to have a difficult conversation, there is a blueprint that we can use to support us as we head into those conversations:

  1. Don’t get into it if you are feeling angry. Never initiate a conversation when you are overly angry, frustrated, or resentful. “While it’s okay to feel emotions, you have to time it right,” points out Salma. “Once you calm down, you’re in a better position to initiate and engage in a conversation.”
  1. Don’t use text, email, or chat, video talk or face to face is better. “Never use emails, texts, or chats to engage in a difficult conversation because things can be lost in translation when written,” says Salma. “And if someone triggers you with their email, don’t take the bait and  don’t defend yourself. Just don’t respond. Ask for a face to face meeting; if that’s not possible, ask for a phone meeting.”
  1. Don’t point fingers, be sarcastic, or call them names. This is especially true when the other person’s words care are racist, homophobic, or misogynistic, thus inflaming our emotions. Call the person out politely and don’t be mean. “Empathize,” Danah advises. “Ask questions and find out why they feel that way. Maybe they were traumatized by a certain race, or those characteristics are the only things they see on tv.” Then respectfully counter these generalizations with your own experiences, such as telling them that you know people from this race who are not what they think them to be. 
  1. Let them share their perspective. When a loved one says or does something that does not sit well with you, ask questions first so you can find out where they are coming from. Danah recommends asking things like “How are you?” “What’s going on?” “I heard you say this, did I hear it correctly?” It’s possible the person only said those words in a moment of heightened emotions or because he or she was confused. 
  1. Use “I” statements. Statements like “From my perspective,” or “The way I see it…” or “I feel __ when you said ___” make it clear that you are speaking for yourself and not making accusatory assumptions about the other person’s intentions or behavior. When the other party does not feel judged, emotions de-escalate and a proper conversation can ensue. 
  2. Don’t  lose focus.  If you find yourself facing a lot of resistance, and the person is veering into unrelated matters, Salma suggests a few statements to help get you back on track: 
  • “I understand where you are coming from, but right now we are talking about …”
  • “That may be true but that is not as urgent as what we are discussing now. Let’s prioritize” 
  • “I suggest we park that and come back to it once we finish our conversation.”
  • “Clearly you have a lot on your mind, let’s set up more time to discuss that after we finish what we came to discuss here.” 

“By doing this, you are giving space for their emotions but putting a boundary that this conversation is focused on a certain discussion and that you won’t deviate,” says Salma.

  1. Agree to disagree. “In today’s society, there is so much polarization going on in the form of ‘If you believe this, we cant be friends,’ or ‘If you don’t agree with me, feel free to unfriend me on social media,’” points out Danah. “But when you start living in a bubble of like-minded people, you become out of touch with the reality that there will always be people who think differently than you. We don’t have to fear the people who oppose our views. Instead, offer to meet halfway, and know that you can both walk away from that conversation not hating each other.” 

Now, if the other person is insistent on his or her views, end the conversation politely but with affirmation. “‘I really love how passionate you are about this,’” Danah role-plays. “‘But I don’t want to argue with you, so let’s just agree to disagree.’”

  1. Create accountability. “When wrapping up the conversation related to work performance, make sure to put a deadline within which you want to see the behavior or results changed/improved,” suggests Salma. “Ask them to book it in your calendar so you can reconvene and assess progress. That will ensure they remain accountable to the changes you have requested.”
  1. Don’t expect to change their minds. “Everyone is entitled to their opinion and at the end of the day, it’s not our job to fix other people’s way of thinking,” Danah says. “Always go back to the relationship; know that the two of you can be extremely different but still love and respect each other. Instead of cutting them off from your life because of differing opinions, use these difficult conversations as an opportunity to practice empathy, patience, and emotional intelligence.”
  1. Do set boundaries for future encounters. Anytime a difficult conversation with a loved one feels overwhelming, know that it’s okay to take a step back for your own mental and emotional health. “Some people can be tolerated only in small doses and there’s nothing wrong with that,” Danah points out. 


It is possible to transform difficult conversations into constructive exchanges. We may not be able to control how others think and react, but we can control our own emotions, thoughts, and responses so that the relationship becomes better for it. 

MindNation offers Company Culture Drive Ⓒ Talks — interactive webinars featuring experts on mental health and other dimensions of wellness. One of our most popular talks is “Having Difficult Conversations In The Workplace” where we train managers on how to handle tough conversations with team members, ensuring the well-being of all involved. If you want us to conduct this training for your team, email us at [email protected]

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