Difficult Conversations

by Barbara Buffton

Handling the emotional side

Getting straight to the point

I’m not here to evaluate your performance. I’m here to locate it.


Emotions play a bigger part in business than is generally acknowledged. And difficult conversations can often stir up strong emotions. Everything you say leaves an emotional aftermath, whether or not you are the one being emotional.

If you have done your Preparation well, you will already be aware of what might happen and have practised how you will deal with it. You cannot control someone else’s reaction, but you can anticipate it and be ready with a response. You can also control your own reaction.

However, even with practice, some people find it hard to deal with other people’s emotions (see Emotional intelligence). If this is you, then taking time out can help. The other person might appreciate a bit of space and time too, in order to process what has been said. The important thing is to be aware of your emotions before they take you over!

Staying objective

Focusing on facts, and what you want to have happen, makes it easier to stay non-emotional. For example:


Punctuality is crucial to this project. When people don’t turn up on time, they cause inconvenience to the rest of the team, who have to cover for them. We all need to be there at 8.30am prompt every day.

Note that this statement makes it very hard for the other person to be defensive as you haven’t actually accused them of anything. You are simply stating facts.


Control your emotion or it will control you.

At the same time, it is important to empathise with the other person if they are getting angry or upset:


I can see that this is hard for you. Would you like to take a pause before we continue?

I suspect this has come as a bit of a shock to you. Would you like some time to reflect before we go on?

Naturally you are angry about this. Let me hear your side of things.

Emotional intelligence

There is a whole topic on this (see Emotional Intelligence). Emotional self-awareness, knowing and understanding your own emotions, is essential to understanding your impact on others. You also need to be able to recognise your own emotions so that you can recognise them in others.

Managing your own state 

Many of us are inevitably nervous and uptight before having what we believe will be a difficult conversation. It therefore follows that it makes sense to get ourselves into the right state of mind beforehand. What if you could manage your own state whenever and wherever you wanted? There are various exercises in other topics, such as NLP and Emotional Intelligence, to help you to do this. However, one quick way is to simply ask yourself how do I want to be right now? Then imagine yourself or someone else being that way:

  • What would you say? How would you say it?
  • How would you behave? What would your body language be like?
  • How would you see yourself?

Take on the words, behaviours and thoughts of that person you want to be AND future-pace your successful outcome; in other words, visualise the conversation going well and ending well.

Be aware of your own state at all times. If you notice that you are becoming upset and losing focus, take time out to regroup – and redo the exercise above.

Male/female reactions

Some people prefer to have ‘difficult’ conversations with members of their own sex, particularly if the topic is a sensitive and personal one.

If this is the case, respect their wishes and brief the person taking over from you.

You may also prefer to tackle issues only with members of your own sex. Again, if this is the case, you may wish to explore the possibilities of someone else handling the difficult conversation. But do make sure you are not using this as an excuse to pass the buck!