How to Have a Difficult Conversation

Are you avoiding a difficult conversation? Learn how to “have the talk.” 

Lisa B. Marshall
6-minute read
Episode #98

Do you tend to avoid difficult conversations? If so, this article is for you. Learn how to improve your relationships with open, courageous conversation.  

The podcast edition of this tip was sponsored by Go To Meeting. Save time and money by hosting your meetings online. Visit GoToMeeting.com/podcast and sign up for a free 45 day trial of their web conferencing solution.

How to Have a Difficult Conversation

If you have a strong impulse to avoid difficult conversations, you’re not alone.  We’re taught “don’t rock the boat” or “don’t open that can of worms.” Instead of confronting issues, we retreat.

Just recently I was faced with a very difficult client situation. Although I knew there was a problem and that I should probably address it, I chose to ignore the problem. I told myself, “Ah, I’m too busy to deal with it right now, and besides, dealing with it will likely bruise our relationship--and it probably won’t change anything.”

Why Avoiding Difficult Conversations Is Bad

I know I’m not alone. Many people, even those with good communication skills, occasionally retreat when faced with difficult and stressful communication issues. We avoid sensitive subjects and let a relationship flounder. Don’t get me wrong, I do think you need to pick your battles;not everything needs to be directly confronted.

However, when we avoid important conflicts, it’s likely to do more damage to the relationship than addressing the situation would. When you avoid communication, the vacuum gets filled with negative assumptions and ill will. Very small matters can bloom into conflicts that become “unmentionable.”

And worse, these “elephant in the room” conflicts can eventually grow so HUGE that eventually they demand your attention. In fact, a 2007 survey (sponsored by Nationwide) reported that because of failure to discuss a difficult issue, nearly half of the respondents lost  sleep, 10% reported poor health, and 5% reported a loss of a job or friendship. 

So, today I’d like to talk about a six quick and dirty steps to help you “have the talk” and successfully have that difficult conversation.

Step #1: Consider the Other Person’s Perspective

As a young adult when I would disagree with my Dad, he’d say, “Everyone is entitled to their own misguided opinion.” What he meant was that everyone comes to a conversation with different backgrounds, influences and perceptions. He wanted me to understand that although he understood my point of view, he disagreed. 

When preparing for a difficult conversation it’s critically important to think about the perspective of the other person. If you were that person, what would you be thinking and feeling? What would be important to you? 


About the Author

Lisa B. Marshall

Lisa B. Marshall Lisa holds masters with duel degrees in interpersonal/intercultural communication and organizational communication. She’s the author of Smart Talk: The Public Speaker's Guide to Success in Every Situation, as well as Ace Your Interview, Powerful Presenter, and Expert Presenter. Her work has been featured in CBS Money Watch, Ragan.com, Woman's Day, Glamour, Cosmopolitan, and many others. Her institutional clients include Johns Hopkins Medicine, Harvard University, NY Academy of Science, University of Pennsylvania, Genentech, and Roche.