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Difficult conversations – facing them, not reacting to them

Fight or flight

It is a universal truth that during our working lives, we will not always agree with our colleagues. There are always going to be times when we need to have difficult conversations or overcome tricky differences. Here is an example:

Recently I had a catch up meeting for a project I’m working on. There was a period of around 10 minutes where I just stopped speaking and let my two colleagues take over because I disagreed strongly with their opinions. I think I may even have stopped talking mid-sentence. Within seconds of the contentious issue coming up, my mind had decided that I categorically couldn’t have an impact on their opinions. I felt hurt, shy, small and powerless. You may have experienced something similar from time to time.

Phone call gone wrong

But I’m a confident person, pretty adept at sharing coherent opinions in non-contentious ways…. So what on earth happened there? The answer is emotions were high, and I as a result I had a threat response to a challenging conversation.

According to Kerry Patterson et al’s book Crucial Conversations, a crucial or challenging conversation is one where:

  • there is a difference of opinion
  • emotions are involved and/or
  • the stakes are high

Therefore, we see such conversations as a threat. And as a result of that we react as we do to all threats: Fight or flight.

As rational, adult, professional people we know that both fighting and running away are not good for our careers. Therefore whilst we try to moderate this animal instinct, the fight or flight response still leaks out in the way we communicate. We respond with Silence (flight) or Violence (fight) instead. Both can present different kinds of behaviours:

Masking When we mask we attempt to understate or hide how we are feeling. We might use sarcasm or humour as a way to deflect our true emotions.
Avoiding When we avoid, we use methods to steer clear of what we consider to be difficult or dangerous topics. We will change to subject in order to steer the conversation to something that feels safer.
Withdrawal When we withdraw, we literally retreat from the conversation. Either by leaving the room or the conversation itself. Often we might start but back out of a conversation.
Controlling When we control, we use tactics to coerce others to our way of thinking. We might do this through overstating the point (“everyone knows…”) or by speaking in absolutes (“the last time we tried that it was a complete disaster”).
Labelling A label can be applied to a person or an idea so that we can dismiss them more easily. (“you’re only saying that because of what happened last year”).
Attacking When we attack we use words to belittle or threaten the other person.

Neither of these are useful tactics for resolving issues at work with a win-win outcome. You’ll probably feel bad or make others feel bad as a result too.


So how can you avoid using these responses? 

1. Look under the rock

Firstly, you need to do a little digging to assess your own responses before you can work out how/where you want to make changes. Looking at the table above, ask yourself “do I have a preference?” “Is it different at work or home?” “Is it heightened in particular situations or with particular people?”

In my case I tend to turn to the ‘avoiding’ (flight) response at work but the ‘controlling’ (fight) response at home. Being aware of this is only the first step and I’m watching my progress carefully to make sure I don’t just reverse these preferences. The goal is to keep responses measured, considerate and effective, not to go to the extreme other reaction!

2. Prepare & practise

The key thing that prepping and practising will give you is a better chance at being able to choose what to say, rather than saying things in reaction to what you’re hearing. In other words: learn to think before you speak.

Where you know you’re going to have a challenging conversation, you can prepare what you’d like to say and practise it – in the mirror or with someone you trust. Voice out loud the emotions you are experiencing and decide what you want to say. Then focus on the most effective  way to say it. Always come back to “what result do I want from this conversation?” If you’re practising with someone, ask for feedback on your tone of voice and body language (if face-to-face) to make sure all three are sending the same message (see this video on Mehrabian’s circle for more on this). Where a challenging conversation comes out of the blue, the practise sessions will help, as you will build more effective habits. You’ll start getting used to responding in a considered way instead of a reactive one.

Good conversation

3. Anchor yourself to stay steady

Use anchors to help you enter challenging conversations (and stay) in a familiar and comfortable state. Essentially, you link a small physical stimulus (like pressing your thumb and forefinger together) to a memory of your choosing when you were in a particular state. In doing so, you’re able to recall that state when you need to. Usually the memory is a positive one where you were happy, calm, confident or similar. The theory is simple, but this takes a lot of practise. Ultimately using anchors are another way to help you remember what you want to say and choosing how you want to respond instead of letting your emotional reactions take over. Read all about anchors and how to use them.

What’s next?

This blog touches on elements from our Handling Difficult Conversations training programme as well as Developing Personal Presence. If you’re keen to explore these techniques further and find out how we can specifically help you or your teams, get in touch online or call to speak to one of our consultants on 020 7978 1516.

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Anna Esslemont

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