Help for those difficult conversations

By Chris Coward, MSW, PCC
From time to time we all have difficult conversations that need to happen at work and home.  You know, those conversations that you are procrastinating on and avoiding for various reasons.  Maybe you feel like the other person is going to be angry and defensive, maybe the other person is great at talking circles around you or maybe they are highly sensitive and you don’t want to hurt their feelings.  No matter what stressful thoughts you are having about these discussions, there are some principles and skills that can make these talks go much smoother than you are envisioning.

  1. Lead with transparency and vulnerability to create a safe environment

From the field of neuroscience we know that transparency and vulnerability increase connection.  The part of the brain associated with distrust, fear, and protecting self is the Amygdala.  This old part of our brain is important to keep us safe and was especially important back in the day when there were numerous physical threats.  I’m sure you are familiar with the stress response that generates fright, flight, freeze, etc. in us when triggered.  In .07 seconds we register whether the interaction with someone is safe.  The newer part of the brain, the Prefrontal Cortex triggers connection, collaboration, caring and creativity.

As you consider your next challenging conversation, what actions, thoughts or words will trigger openness in the other person and you?


  1. Look to connect before launching into the topic

“No one cares how much you know until they know how much you care.” ~ FDR

We’ve all had the experience of a boss, partner or someone we know launch into a criticism or something they are angry with us about without an introduction to either prepare us or using an easier to digest approach that doesn’t trigger our stress response.  It doesn’t have to happen that way!  One way to approach the conversation is to establish rapport first with the intention of bringing trust, openness and connection into the conversation.  What does this do?  It activates the hormone oxytocin (which is a feel good hormone) and reduces cortisol.

Before your next challenging conversation, set the intention of listening to connect.  The goal is to withhold judgment of each other and be open to new possibilities created in the conversation.

  1. Listen to Understand

As you are listening to the other person how much do you fully step into their world and see things from their viewpoint?  To do this requires openness and being non-judgmental and it’s harder than it sounds.  We all carry a story about the other when we come into these conversations.  What would it do for the conversation to put the story aside and be curious and open about their experience?  From a neuroscience perspective, the ability to do this activates empathy and mirror neurons.  Mirror neurons allow us to understand each other – they open up empathy.

  1. Practice!

There’s no shame in practicing what you are going to say and how you would like to show up in your challenging conversation.  You can test out with someone else how your words and energy are landing on them.


I’ll share a personal example of using these strategies.  I was not looking forward to having a conversation with a contracted employee who I needed to take off the project she was on.  The story I made up was that she was going to be really angry and try to talk me out of my decision, a decision that was best for our company.  I also knew there was plenty of room for her to let me have it around the startup nature of the project and how frustrating the technology was and all the changes that were happening.  I set an intention of how I wanted her and me to feel in the conversation before we had the conversation.  I wanted me to feel empathic and understanding and I wanted her to feel heard and appreciated for what she did bring to the table.  Essentially I valued her as a person and consultant and thought she could do well in a different situation.  I wrote out some bullet points to cover so I wouldn’t lose track and practiced my opening.

When we did have the discussion, I transparently told her that I was nervous about the conversation and asked her if there’s anything that we could co-create that would minimize defensiveness.  I asked her how the project was going from her perspective.  I shared my concerns with her on the project and that we decided that she be removed from this type of client work.  She was not defensive and actually seemed relieved!  She did give me some feedback on how things could improve and we ended the conversation both feeling heard and appreciated.

To learn more about the neuroscience behind conversations check out the work of Judith Glasser and her book Conversational Intelligence.



To work with Chris to help you manage challenging leadership conversations in the workplace contact her for a complimentary consult.