How to carry out difficult conversations

by Steve Garcia & Paul Black, April 19th 2013  

You would be hard pressed to find a list of critical leadership abilities that doesn't rank communication near the top. As stated by James Humes, author and presidential speechwriter, "The art of communication is the language of leadership."

Communication comes in many forms: presenting to a crowded auditorium; facilitating a small group discussion; and conversing one-on-one. While we tend to think the risk increases as the audience grows, some of the most difficult communications are between individuals when the topic of conversation is emotionally charged or the participants have diametrically opposed points of view.

When these difficult discussions go well, it's rewarding for both parties and strengthens the relationship between them. When they go badly, however, the people involved may become frustrated, resentful, and emotionally drained. In the worst instances, the relationship is poisoned forever. Consequently, too often people avoid these discussions, choosing instead to sweep disagreements under the rug. Unfortunately, this strategy just prolongs the inevitable and often makes it worse. According to Colin Powell, "Bad news is not like wine. It doesn't get better with age."

In our experience coaching executives and building high-performance teams, we have identified a simple, yet powerful framework that can be used to facilitate even the most challenging discussions. We call the framework SAFE, and it's been used successfully in a variety of settings, including: providing negative feedback, confronting disagreements, and arriving at compromises.

Set the Scene

It's critical with any difficult discussion to establish a collaborative environment and mutual purpose at the start. Make certain that you, yourself, are calm and in touch with your own emotions and find a location to conduct the conversation where you won't be disturbed.

Describe the situation and share your intent. Use "I" language and be specific in your description:

"Jenny, I've noticed that you've been repeatedly late to my meetings. It's happened the last three weeks. I feel it's disrupting the discussion and preventing us from getting done what we need to in the time we have."

A critical task is to invite the other individual to help solve the problem. Clearly state that you are open to their perspective and want to come up with a solution collaboratively: "I'd like to understand your point of view about what's going on and then work together to come up with a solution."

Such an invitation establishes mutual respect by communicating that you are not just trying to advocate for your own point of view but instead value and want to understand the opinion of the other person.


Having enlisted the other individual to help solve the problem, uncover their perspective on the issue. Put aside your own internal voice that may be judging what they're saying or formulating a response. Instead, focus on really understanding how they see the world. In addition to the content of what they say, pay attention to the emotion. Take note of body language, facial cues, and tone to help identify how they're feeling.

A useful tool to ensure comprehension is reflection. Check in to make sure you understand correctly:

"Jenny, it sounds like you agree that the meeting is important and that you should be part of it. The challenge for you is the duration. You don't think we need a full hour. Is that right?"

In addition, ask questions to learn more. In particular, open-ended versus yes/no questions typically elicit a richer response. For example, imagine the difference between asking "Do you think the meeting is important" and asking "How does the meeting benefit the team?"

Find Options

With a thorough understanding of where and why you and the other individual agree and disagree, you can brainstorm solutions that work for both parties. Focus on the future, not the past. For example, "Perhaps we could move the meeting to a different time, or you could dial-in, or we could compromise and cut the durationf to 45 minutes?"

When building on the other person's ideas use "And" instead of "But." "That's a great idea and let's make sure we start the meeting on time" versus "That's a great idea but we need to start the meeting on time." The use of "but" negates the first half of the message while the use of "and" validates it.

If you get stuck, bring the discussion back to the mutual goal you've established: "Remember we agreed it's important that we solve this problem. Let's work together to come up with something we can both agree to."

There will, of course, be some instances when no solution presents itself or when you or the other individual is so upset that you can't engage effectively in the process. In those rare cases, it can be beneficial to bring in a 3rd party who can provide an objective perspective.

Exit with Agreement

Once you and the other person agree on the solution, it's important to be clear about the next steps. Who will do what, where, and when. Often, it's helpful to repeat the agreement just to make certain both parties have the same expectations: "So I agree to change the time of the meeting to 10:30 and send out pre-reads in advance and you commit to arriving on time."

Even if you weren't able to solve the problem during the conversation, you can review the progress you've made and agree on next steps. "OK. We've both agreed that the meeting is important and you need to be there but we haven't found a way to make that happen yet . Let's talk again on Tuesday to continue the conversation."

When confronted with the need to have a difficult conversation, one of the worst things you can do is ignore it. It only prolongs the agony. Instead, use the SAFE framework to ensure that both parties leave the conversation on a positive note. Being able to have difficult conversations is one of the most valuable tools you can have in your personal and professional relationships.

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Leadership Crescendo - Reflections and thoughts on leadership learned after thirty years of thinking about, experiencing, teaching and coaching executives for leadership effectiveness, written by Kaveh Naficy