Intent Blog

The Keys to having a Difficult Conversation

Giving feedback is so important. But giving feedback is difficult, a feedback conversation is always a difficult conversation. So being good at difficult conversations is necessary for being good at giving feedback. Difficult conversations will always be most difficult at the beginning, the most difficult part is getting the conversation started.

Difficult conversations do not just “go away.” It is impossible to wish them away. They must take place, because if they don’t, the emotional charge that hangs over the relationship will become even more severe. And we know that! There are some things you can do before going into a difficult conversation and during the conversations to make them easier and more successful.

Clarifying your intention

The most important thing to do before the conversation is clarifying your intention; why are you having this conversation and what is the outcome you want to achieve?

The biggest obstacle to Saying No is ourselves! When it comes to successfully navigating a difficult conversation we are our own biggest obstacles. The most important variable for success is what we are bringing into that conversation. If a conversation starts with my hostile/angry intention, it has a very low probability of being productive.

And, of course: our intention shapes our expectations of the outcome. The effect is that we act with a very limited outcome, you are going to get what you expect in all likely hood because that will be the outcome you limit yourself to. One of the biggest mistakes we can make is to not expect something positive to come from the conversation, and this is what we call the sucker’s choice.

Avoiding the Sucker’s Choice

Difficult conversations may be based on a “sucker’s choice.” The sucker’s choice is implying that whatever the outcome of the conversation is going to be, it will be bad. Because of anticipating this bad outcome, people do at least three things. In the brilliant Vital Smarts book, called “Crucial Conversations,” the authors refer to the three A’s:

  • Accommodate: we say yes when we want to say no. When we give the person one-sided feedback and they leave with the impression “all is well.” We therefore create a false yes.
  • Attack: we say no poorly. Even worse: we turn it into a verbal battle where there is only room for one winner, preferably the initiator of the discussion. The intention is to get the other’s compliance. It is not unusual for this kind of discussion to become very personal, and to do irreparable damage.
  • Avoid: Say nothing at all. Yet, saying nothing is like saying yes. Until we hold the person accountable, they have reason to think it is ok to do what they do.

Govern your emotions

Difficult conversations are partly difficult because of my unwillingness to say “no” or “enough.” But, they are also difficult because there is a typically significant difference of opinion. This significance of the difference tends raises the emotional temperature. If we do not manage the emotional temperature, it can have a very negative impact on a conversation. We could respond to by accommodating or as if it is no big deal. Or by attacking and letting rip with  felt hostility. Or by avoiding and suppressing the felt emotion and pretend all is good.

The basic principle is that you must be very careful when you experience strong emotions during a difficult conversation, particularly the negative one ‘s of resentment or fear, but also unbalanced positive one’s like euphoria or elation. If you do experience such emotions, take a break-moment before you continue.

The Two Key Factors for Success in a difficult conversation

There are two key factors that will help take the “difficult” out of a difficult discussion. These are courage and safety. Difficult conversations require courage and they are best handled in a safe environment which gives people a certain level of ease when having to step up and be courageous.


In research on courage it is clear that being courageous is about recognising and acting on the highest value applicable in the situation. When interviewing policemen and fire fighters, their answer to the question “why” was simply: “it is my job. This is what I do.” For them, doing their job is the highest value, the non-negotiable.

In the context of work the challenge is to recgonise the value operative that warrants the conversation. Most often the operative value should be to help the other person by giving them tough feedback. If this really is the value operative then the courage of the tough conversation is given a worthy purpose and really is courage, instead of brutality. In a relationships outside work we can ask: how is the difficult conversation an investment in the relationship rather than just blame-shifting or an emotional explosion?


Douglas Stone and his co-authors (in “Difficult Conversations”) has very simple but powerful recommendations to make the conversation safe. Specifically:

i. state your Benevolent Intent;

ii. agree to mutual purpose for the discussion;

iii. invite them to join you as a partner in sorting out the situation together;

iv. shift your intention to support learning, sharing, and problem-solving.


Further pointers on how to be successful in a difficult conversation:

  • Recognise there are three stories: mine, theirs, and “the facts” or the “3rd.”. The challenge is mastering the three stories. Specifically, for mastery: the questions that follow are useful a) to prepare myself, b) to ask during the conversation, and c) to get to the third story for a positive outcome.
  • What happened? What am I focusing on for the discussion? Is it a single event or pattern? If I am focusing on the pattern: stay with short history.
  • What emotions are involved (for me; and for them)? If possible, name them, and identify the message: what is the message of the emotions? How does the emotional message tie up with what happened here, and with what is at stake? If out of line, then keep the emotions to one side and focus on the third story.
  • What is at stake here? What are possible consequences? Why, and how, to avoid the current consequences?
  • Agree on the third story: focus on the third story for the solution to resolve the difficult conversation. Explore if there are any particular means required to do the job? Does the person have the required abilities to master the process of the work?
  • Agree to action: clarify actions, dates for delivery and follow up.



Armand Kruger

Armand Kruger qualified as a clinical psychologist at the University of Pretoria in 1972. Since 1973 he has been working with one burning question: How do successful people do it differently? What alternatives are they doing in their minds not done by the average or the underachiever? To answer that question he went outside of mainstream psychology to find cognitive process models that will capture the essence of success.