Tips on Navigating Difficult Conversations

by Zach Montroy, SPHR

We’ve all been there. Maybe it’s a small issue that’s snowballed into a larger one or that nagging feeling we get when we know we need to address an issue with a colleague, boss or teammate. Navigating conflict is hard. Which is why many of us would rather stick our heads in the proverbial sand and hope the problem just goes away. Pro tip: It doesn’t, and oftentimes, if the issue isn’t dealt with, both the source of conflict and the relational carnage compound exponentially.

Perhaps you’ve been taught that conflict is a symptom of poor leadership, as though being a good leader means people are just going to fall in line and do as you say. This is not true. Conflict is unavoidable. And even though conflict might seem indicative of dysfunction within a relationship, conflict that is navigated in a healthy way can actually help relationships flourish. Conflict can be the doorway to agreement and, in many cases, can lead to personal and relational growth. 

Signs that conflict is present: As a general rule of thumb, if you sense that conflict is present, it usually is. As a leader you’ve learned to be intuitive, so use that intuition to sniff out conflict and address it. If conversations with someone on your team include one or more of the following, it’s a pretty sure sign that conflict is present: 

  • Contempt
  • Criticism
  • Intentional silence
  • Defensiveness

Why do we default to NOT having difficult conversations? Put simply, conflict is disagreement. But, have you ever let your emotions spiral out of control or convinced yourself of something that might not be true simply to avoid a difficult conversation? If you have, it could be explained, in part, by the body’s physiological response to fear. 

Our brains have been hardwired to associate conflict with danger, triggering our amygdala (the section of our brain responsible for detecting fear and preparing for emergency response) to take over and suddenly we’re thrust into a fight-or-flight response. When the amygdala takes over, the prefrontal cortex (the region of the brain responsible for sophisticated interpersonal thinking skills and the competence for emotional well-being) is hijacked. One of the key dangers in staying in this zone is the “thinking” part of our brain is no longer engaged, instead of being thoughtful in our response a heightened state of emotion coupled with a heightened sense of stress take over. In this scenario a leader loses a significant amount of their ability to control their emotions becoming less emotionally intelligent in the situation. 

The solution? Rewire your brain to leverage the benefits of dealing with the conflict rather than retreating (the flight response) or creating all kinds of relational complications (the fight response). 

Weigh the benefits: Start with a needs analysis. Are you currently experiencing conflict in a particular relationship? Begin drafting the reasons you need to approach this person with your concerns. Are you hurt, disappointed, fearful, guilty or frustrated? Write out WHY you need to have this conversation. Next, what could the impact be? What are the potential benefits of having this difficult conversation with this person? Is it greater emotional awareness, forgiveness, change, better performance, freedom?

Weigh the risks: Next, it’s important for you to identify the potential risks. If you have this conversation, what could happen? Could you lose a friendship or coworker? Could you lose your job? We all about worst-case scenarios, so write them out. This exercise will help you see that the biggest fears surrounding conflict are often irrational and unfounded. And, more often than not, the benefits outweigh the risks when it comes to exercising leadership skills in navigating conflict. 

As a final step, consider any other benefits or risks related not only to addressing the conflict, but also those related to avoiding the conflict altogether.

Use a guide: Having a high-impact, crucial conversation might be new to you. When developing a new skill, it’s important to remember we all need practice, especially regarding being thoughtful with our words and seeking to understand one another.

  1. Choose the conversation. What is it that you’re wanting to address? Don’t pile on unrelated or unnecessary items. Choose the behavior or issue that needs to be addressed and focus on that. Decide what you want to accomplish in the conversation. Reflect on what you want them to know, how you want them to feel and what you will do as a result of this conversation. 
  2. Speak candidly, but kindly and with respect. If you start off feeling defensive and self-protective, the other person will match that energy, and you’ll each leave the conversation frustrated. Don’t “spin” the message; be clear and direct but kindhearted. Use “I” messages. For example, “When you did _____(action or issue you’re addressing), I felt _____ (insert your feeling here).” It’s hard to argue with how someone feels. 
  3. Remain detached from the outcome. Accept that you’re not going to get your way 100% of the time; be open to what they have to say. Your emotions are there to offer suggestions, not lead the charge. Let go of needing to control the conversation; rather focus on speaking clearly. 
  4. Problem solve and make a plan. The conversation will be more productive if you can establish an action plan with a clear timeline. What is each party taking away from the discussion? What action steps will be taken and by whom? When will these steps be completed?

Navigating conflict can be challenging, but it isn’t impossible, and proper conflict management can help you become a stronger leader. Conflict resolution should be a dialogue, a safe conversation where both parties are engaged for the best possible outcome. Let’s lean into difficult conversations knowing they can be essential in creating high-quality relational connections that facilitate change and growth.

Need help? Schedule a call today to do a people diagnostic and find out how you can be a leader who navigates these types of conversations with ease and intentionality.

Related Posts

Download our Free Guide:

The 3 Stages of Building a High-Performance Team (With Your Current Constraints)

Knowing when and how to grow your team can be a challenge. This guide walks you through the process we use when helping our clients navigate how and when to hire.


Next Steps: Sync an Email Add-On

To get the most out of your form, we suggest that you sync this form with an email add-on. To learn more about your email add-on options, visit the following page ( Important: Delete this tip before you publish the form.