March 14, 2024

Communication: Difficult Conversations

Two parrots next to each other not facing each other looking shy

We have all experienced the discomfort of difficult conversations. They are a part of everyday life, and yet we spend very little time or effort trying to improve them.

Apart from making us feel uncomfortable, conflict and disagreement polarise views or even lead to the avoidance of dialogue altogether, which means decisions being made with partial or wrong information.

In this article we look at why we find some conversations so difficult, the strategies we commonly use to deal with these and why these usually fail, and we present a framework for turning difficult conversations into productive ones.

Why are Some Conversations Difficult?

Most communication difficulties result from conflict and fear. When we feel threatened, human nature puts us into defence mode where our more analytical thought processes are overwritten by a reactive set of behaviours based on a fight, flight or freeze response. This changes the way we think, the way we communicate and even our body language. In turn, this affects the people we are communicating with. It only takes one small trigger before both participants in an exchange are in self-defence mode.

Many things cause fear but in everyday situations they mostly fall into three categories; fear of being disliked or rejected; fear of being hurt or of hurting someone else; and fear of uncertainty and an associated desire for closure. Typically, these all cause us to either attack as a form of self-defence or to try and avoid whatever is causing the fear.

If fear is the cause, conflict is often the source of fear. Conflict may result from imbalances in power or status; different views, opinions or ideas; or at a deeper level differences of belief, perspective or culture. It may also arise from a difference of personality.

Personality and Conflict

The importance of personality in conflict is misunderstood. We often assume character differences to be fixed and therefore unresolvable. In reality, we each have several different personas, each with its own set of behaviours. We behave differently according to the situation we are in. This is particularly so when we are under pressure.

When we converse with someone, we pick up clues about them from the words they use, their tone of voice and their body language. We try to forge links with them by mimicking their style. When conflict emerges, people’s behaviour changes but we have often formed an immutable view of them by this point, which can lead to a breakdown in communication. For example, if someone seems to be naturally empathetic and “people-focussed”, talking to them in terms of collaboration and collective gain will help the conversation flow. However, if stress causes them to switch to focussing on finding a solution at any cost, the empathetic or collaborative tone we have been using may no longer work and may even irritate them.

A strong awareness of our own behavioural traits, and how they may affect other people, is vital but we also need to recognise signs of behavioural patterns in others which might give us a clue as to how they are likely to respond.

Understanding Conflict

We can achieve this by using a framework developed by Kenneth Thomas and Ralph Kilmann. Their model is based on two underlying dimensions of behaviour under conflict: assertiveness and cooperation. If we map the two behaviours onto a matrix, we can see the most common coping strategies we use in difficult situations (Figure 1).

Figure 1: Conflict Model based on Thomas-Kilmann (1974)

Compromise: When we do not display strong tendencies on either of the two dimensions, we seek compromise. This is not the win-win it is thought to be, it is often suboptimal for both parties.

Compete: If we are assertive but uncooperative, we end up in competition. This is a winner takes-all strategy and may have negative repercussions down the road.

Accommodate: When we are unassertive but cooperative, we accommodate; we let the other party have their way. This is also a winner takes all situation but less contentious. However, it means we must be willing to concede.

Avoid: If we are uncooperative and unassertive, we just avoid the situation. It may temporarily diffuse the issue, but it means a solution is never reached.

Collaborate: When we are assertive and cooperative, we can begin to look for the best overall outcome. This is what we should aim for, but it takes hard work.

Creating a Collaborative Environment

The first requirement for effective collaboration is a safe and productive environment for discussion. Psychological safety is a concept developed by Harvard professor Amy Edmondson and describes when everyone is willing to have a potentially difficult conversation with the clear outcome of finding a solution and without fear of judgement or retribution.

A powerful framework for enabling productive, psychologically safe dialogue is the Radical Candor approach, developed by ex-Google and Apple executive Kim Scott. Radical Candor requires that we balance two equally important factors; robustly challenging and deeply caring about people. Achieving Radical Candor is difficult because the two dimensions are often perceived as mutually exclusive. When we fail in either or both, we are pulled towards behaviours that are unproductive and potentially damaging (Figure 2).

Figure 2: Radical Candour based on Scott (2018)

Psychologically, we are hardwired to be benevolent towards others, but we also want to be truthful. When we think the truth might hurt, we become conflicted. This internal conflict causes us to adopt one of three strategies: We may place too much emphasis on caring about the other person’s feelings to deliver the tough message, Scott calls this “ruinous empathy”. Alternatively, we become overly forthright and neglect the other person’s feelings, which is known as “obnoxious aggression”. Or we opt for “manipulative insincerity” where we focus only on our own feelings, leading us to twist the message or even avoid tackling the situation altogether.

Being Radically Candid

A good starting point for a radically candid conversation is to recognise that it is behaviours which are difficult, rather than people themselves, then follow these five steps to create the right behavioural environment:

1) Self-awareness: By increasing our understanding of our own behavioural characteristics, we are less likely to say or do something which puts our counterparty into a stressed state. MindAlpha’s psychometric profiling can give you a really deep understanding of how you react under pressure. Otherwise, asking people you trust for feedback on how you come across in different contexts can also be helpful.

2) Active listening: We all think we are good listeners, but in reality, we are not. We are usually focused on what we are going to say next, not on what our counterparty is saying and how they are saying it. Being aware of the other’s words and tone allows us to detect when they are becoming stressed and to calm the situation by showing that we recognise their position.

3) Reframing: To achieve a productive outcome, we need to shift the focus of the conversation to finding a solution rather than apportioning blame. The first step in any difficult conversation should be to agree on what a mutually acceptable outcome looks like, then to understand what is preventing us from moving towards it.

4) Verbal communication: We cannot hope to create a cooperative dialogue if we do not communicate effectively, with simple, clear, appropriate and non-threatening language. When we have a difficult message to get across it is vital to rehearse it carefully.

5) Non-verbal communication: Tone of voice and body language have been shown to account for over 90% of the sentiment people feel after an exchange. A difficult message delivered well can land softly and a positive message delivered poorly can miss the target. A warm, non-threatening tone of voice and body language are critical for managing difficult conversations.


It is generally not people who are difficult, it is behaviours. Something which appears entirely natural to one person can threaten or antagonise someone else. When this happens, people’s behaviour can change, which will often exacerbate the situation, quickly leading to conflict.

We need to step back and make space for both parties to breathe. We need to focus on achieving the best possible outcome for both sides within the constraints of the situation. We can only do this if we create a safe environment in which a constructive, cooperative but honest and challenging exchange is possible, remain constantly aware of how our own behaviour is impacting the other person, remain alert to how their behaviour is changing, show that we recognise their position and concerns and then state our case in clear, simple and non-threatening way.

Stay in the loop

Subscribe for actionable insights directly into your inbox.

Thank you! Your submission has been received!
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.