How Can I Master Challenging Conversations?

Having a challenging or critical conversation makes most people uncomfortable.  Even the thought of it makes peoples’ facial expressions contort and grimace as they reflect on the last challenging conversation they took part in.  We have all been there; whether it’s confronting a direct report about a performance management issue or ending up in a heated discussion with colleagues or a boss.

In my experience there are only a small percentage of people who do it well and feel reasonably comfortable with the process and they are generally the ones who have practiced a lot and know the techniques.

Being able to hold a challenging conversation and manage conflict is an essential leadership competency and good leaders are the ones who don’t shy away, but face the conflict, solve it, don’t dwell on it and move on.

Practice and preparation is key.  Confidence is only built by practice, so the more times you do it the better you will be.  Preparation allows you to be really clear in what you want to say and equally what you don’t want to say.

In the emotion of the moment when things get heated we can all say things we don’t want to.  That’s because the fight or flight mechanism causes the blood to leave our brain and go to our extremities so we are ready to run, as we were originally programmed to do in dangerous situations!  But now it’s our thoughts that can be dangerous!  When the blood leaves our brain we can’t think clearly and we need 1-2 minutes to calm down.  If you feel that happening to you, take a couple of deep breaths, or where possible ask to continue the meeting a bit later when you have had a chance to calm down.

Things to consider: Avoid laying blame, pushing the other person’s emotional buttons or going on for too long and remember that we all have different maps of the world and see things in different ways.  The key objective is to come out of a challenging conversation with resolution and a solution; it is not about winning.

So what can you do to be good at challenging conversations?

Where you can prepare, spend 15 minutes mapping out the conversation. Use the below questions as a guide.

a)    What outcome do you really want from the conversation?

b)   What don’t you want to occur as a result of the conversation?

c)    Can you get the outcome you would like and avoid what you don’t want to occur?

 6 Step Approach

(This model is Adapted from:  Susan Scott, 2002, Fierce Conversations)

1)    Name the situation, issue or behaviour that occurred and give an example or provide facts that can’t be disputed

2)    Describe how you feel about the situation, using “I” statements

3)    Explain the consequences of the situation, e.g. “I believe this is causing” or “I am concerned about”

4)    Share your contribution to how the situation has developed to this point “ I realize I should have” or “ I should have said something”

5)    State the outcome you want to achieve.  “ I’d like to resolve this by” or “I would like us to be able to”

6)    Ask the other person to respond so you can see their perspective “ How do you see it”  “What are your thoughts?”

The above format will ensure that you are planned and prepared so now the rest is up to you ……


Equilibrio’s executive services are engaged and retained by senior leaders and executives in Australian organisations, multi-nationals, government, and not-for-profit organisations.