We've all been there when it comes to having a difficult conversation. You've had an argument with a close friend and need to patch things up. Breaking up with someone because it just isn't working. A work colleague who you're just not clicking with. A manager who questions your work performance.

These are all awkward situations where one reaction could be to avoid these situations all together. However, avoiding these difficult conversations doesn't help and usually results in an already-weird situation getting even worse. But if you handle these conversations in the correct way, it'll help everyone understand each other a bit better and may even improve the relationship.

So let's stop beating around the bush like you would with a, well, difficult conversation. Here are some tips on how to have those difficult conversations that you want to avoid but know you can't.


Think about the issue from the other person's POV

It takes two to tango and a difficult conversation is no different (though it involves fewer dance moves). It's easy to get caught up in how the issue affects you while forgetting that the other person may also be feeling hurt or awkward as well. Try to think about the issue from the other person's perspective and ask yourself some important questions, like:

  • What are the reasons the person might have acted the way they did?

  • Has this person done/said anything like this before, or is this totally out of character?

  • Is there anything else going on in their life that might be a factor?

  • Did I do anything that may have hurt/confused/angered them that might account for what’s happened? If so, take responsibility for that.

Remember, it's not all about you.

Think about how you think and feel about this situation, and how you want it to be resolved

What makes difficult conversations, well, difficult is trying to convey how you think and feel, and how you would like the situation to be resolved. Before having the conversation, think about how the situation did make you think and feel, and what the best outcome is for you. Some examples include:

  • "I feel angry because a newer colleague got promoted above me. I'd like an explanation as to why I wasn't picked for the promotion"

  • "I feel upset because I made a huge effort to prepare and cook dinner and I had to throw it out in the end. I want to know why they were late, and I want a genuine apology".

Make sure you use "I" statements ("I feel really upset" rather than "You don't care about me") as you are trying to express what you think and how you feel about the situation. "You" statements will derail the conversation and create an argument.

While there's no need to write a script for what you want to say, it can be helpful to plan out or write dot points about what you're going to say in case nerves get the best of you. Just remember that if things aren't going well then it's okay to take a break and revisit another time when both of you are more calm.

Listen... like, actually listen

Find the right time and place to have the awkward conversation with the other person. It needs to be a place where neither of you will be interrupted, and you both have time to finish the conversation.

When in the conversation, really listen to what the other person is saying. See the situation from their point of view. Don't spend the time thinking about how you will respond next, as you will miss what they are saying. Most importantly, don't talk over them either. It's a respectful and constructive conversation, not an argument. You will get your turn to respond.

By following these tips, you will show the other person you care about the situation, and you want it resolved as much as they do.

Agree to disagree

As much as we like to have a happy ending to all difficult discussions, not all conversations end on a positive note as there are just some issues, situations and behaviours that can't be talked through, regardless of how constructive and respectful you are. But that's perfectly okay.

Agreeing to disagree doesn't mean you agree with the other person, you're acknowledging that the conversation has hit the point where you understand each other, but a mutual agreement cannot be reached.

Having said that, if you are work colleagues, having a simmering relationship will not help either of you. Remaining neutral or friendly towards them, but being wary of future joint tasks, might be the best outcome.

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Information sourced from Reach Out and Harvard Business Review

Image credit: The Office

All content is created and published for informational purposes only. It is not intended to be a substitute for professional advice.

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