All the essential dos and don’ts of crucial conversations – part two

I try to argue as if I am right, but listen as if I am wrong – Bob Sutton

By Paul Hutcheson

Part Two: Ten powerful ways to get your message across in hard-to-have conversations

There is no way someone is expected to apply all the ideas and suggestions canvassed in this article. Remember, however, that the general skill level in conveying difficult messages is not high, so even one or two of these suggestions – applied well – dramatically improves any type of communication.

These techniques work in any number of crucial conversation situations. These may involve a spouse trying to talk to their partner, an employer raising a difficult performance issue with an employee, a senior executive navigating through some critical business deal, an advocate extracting some concession in a sensitive negotiation or a resident striving to achieve some peace with a neighbour.

Here are the key points to remember:

Treat them as the jury
Less is better
Mixing some positives with the negatives
The place of honesty
Expressing strong feelings
Be wary of assuming the negative
Commence by stating your intent
Treat them as the jury

In any crucial conversation, you invariably are seeking something from somebody – an agreement from them to do something, to stop some action, to commit to something for the future, to pay money, to go shares in some deal, to make concession, to offer an apology, etc. Unfortunately, what dominates the approach of many experienced advocates seems to be an almost deliberate strategy to irritate and aggravate the person on the other side.

These advocates are then bemused as to why the recipient of their verbal ‘working over’ has not meekly conformed to their demands. Of course nothing is more likely to turn somebody against the idea you are promoting than personal verbal abuse. I have seen many employers enter a mediation reconciled to maybe paying $10,000 to make a dispute ‘go away’, only to vehemently retract from this position after suffering a blistering attack from the other side.

Treating the other side as the jury is not about ingratiation or insincere flattery of someone about whom you may have some strong negative feelings. When addressing the person from whom you wish to extract some movement in their previously stated position, remember:

Neutrality – When expressing your thoughts, guard against them being unduly hostile/aggressive or manipulatively nice. Couch your thoughts in as neutral a way as possible. Neutrality is not about dishonesty; rather it’s a focus on describing feelings with some detachment from strong emotions and an objective accuracy about what has occurred.
Show respect and make some connection – Regardless of what personal feelings you may have about someone with whom you are engaging in a crucial conversation, take all opportunities to demonstrate a polite and courteous manner. This may include observing appropriate greetings, making small talk, passing them a cup of coffee at the breaks and other gestures of goodwill.
Threats – Don’t use them! The problems with threats are many: their overuse in many types of negotiation situations, they are presented too early and often without much class, plus too many people rely on them when they clearly don’t have the ability to deliver on the promise. If you wish to talk about the consequences if an issue is not resolved, do this in a detached manner and only at the appropriate time.
Less is better

When there is a need to be critical of either someone or their actions, in order to increase your chances of being heard and understood, make the comments as brief as possible. We all have little tolerance for being harangued. Verbal assaults are only likely to produce opposite results from what is intended.

Mixing some positives with the negatives

Any difficult negotiation or conflict situation invariably brings with it some problematic history and patterns of poor communication. To achieve some breakthrough, someone often needs to try something different.

There is always something positive about a person or a situation. Acknowledging a genuinely positive aspect of somebody can halt those escalating spirals of conflict, open the mind to some listening and it may lead to wider understanding.

Take an employee who has worked for a company for five years and is now in dispute because she has received a warning over a breach of conduct which she wishes to have removed from her record. So when opening the crucial conversation with their manager, rather than launching into a 30 minute tirade cataloguing all the employer’s five years of accumulated faults, it’s much more savvy to start by highlighting the good aspects of the relationship with the employer. By all means then identify specifically the unfairness of the warning but a totally critical focus only achieves two closed ears.

The place of honesty

Effective advocacy is not about dishonesty or ‘soft-pedalling’ messages to such a degree that nothing is actually said. Some people have said to me, ‘this mediating talk is all very well but I want to be honest and tell it as it really is!’ This sentiment is great but expressing our honesty in the midst of intense conversations is rather problematic, for these reasons:

One person’s honesty so easily becomes another’s dishonesty. We so cherish our honest beliefs that herein lies both strengths and limitations. Specific interpersonal communication problems are often ‘overdone strengths’. So while the expression of passion is a positive commodity, the fervour with which we exhibit our honest beliefs during intense interpersonal conflict can be a major negative influence. For example, what someone may say to another in a mediation is, ‘My beliefs are so strong and I am being so honest about them, and your ideas as to what happened are so diametrically opposed to mine, the only conclusion to be drawn is that you are being dishonest and actually must be lying.’
An honest belief is not always a fully considered or wise one. For many of us, when in the midst of some intense conflict, an invitation to be honest can lead to the holus-bolus venting of all our pent-up frustrations and anger – ‘I didn’t hold back. I really told him as it is’. Given the grief that we experience in conflict, it’s unsurprising that expressing honest sentiments can equal messages of real vengeance and retribution. While this guarantees short-term satisfaction, it also guarantees escalation of difficulties and negates any goal of changing the other person’s heart and mind.
Honesty and objective accuracy can be two quite different things. Our honest feelings are our truthful and sincere beliefs and people rarely lie about their feelings and interpretations. However, while perceptions will be 100 per cent real for me, they are yet to be established as proven fact. Importantly my perceptions will certainly not be the reality for those with whom I am locked into dispute. Furthermore, intense situations have dramatic and highly predictable impacts upon our perceptions. In conflict the people who are in dispute with each other, will select quite different information. There is always a clear gap in the way they each treat exactly the same information. The more difficult a situation is, the more we make assumptions that protect ourselves and help to put our opponents in the worst possible light. In these circumstances rather than reflecting balanced perspectives, the conclusions we draw from somewhat skewed information can be overly influenced by exaggeration, fixed mindsets and extreme positions. (Note 1)
Finally, while expressing honest feelings may not be an easy task, having to listen to someone else being honest about their negative perceptions of us can be very difficult. It is a rare skill to be able to listen to an unfettered barrage of honestly held negative assumptions about ourselves. So this is yet another reason to care when we are expressing those honest beliefs about someone (especially when we ‘want something’ of them).
Expressing strong feelings

Take Peter who is a mid-level manager wishing to raise some difficult ongoing performance and behavioural issues with employee Kate. Peter’s previous strategies of dealing with the problem have been unsuccessful. Firstly, he ignored things, hoping it would all go away. Then he alluded to them in such an indirect way that Kate had no idea what he was referring to. Finally, out of frustration and some anger, his overly forceful and hostile manner proved to be totally unproductive. On reflection he might try some of the suggestions in the following template:

reasonableness through offering a concession and apology
powerful directness through specifics over incidents and future options
openness through conceding involvement of others and possibility of more information
constructive approach through acknowledging Kate’s positive aspects.
‘Thanks Kate for agreeing to meet with me again. I know our previous conversations have not gone well, for which I take responsibility and I do now offer my apology. However, these issues we have been trying to talk about in my rather bumbling way are important for me, the business and most significantly I would suggest for you.

‘While other people had some role in the August incident, it is time for you to reflect seriously on your responsibility for the September and October incidents. If there is no movement here Kate, other avenues will need to be explored which regrettably could have some possible disciplinary consequences for you. While I can understand you may have some comments over what you feel I have done or not done, and I am here to listen and learn more about that, from my point of view I feel I have been more than fair over these issues. I feel my trust in you has been taken advantage of. Other aspects of your work such as the Red Project have been good, so let’s have a honest conversation with the purpose of sorting out a fair and meaningful way of dealing with this problem.” (Note 2)
Be wary of assuming the negative

Whenever we become embroiled in a conflict, it’s so easy to assume that the other person actually intended to do whatever they did. While there are unquestionably some bad people in the world, there are certainly not as many as there are conflicts. Self-interest will often go hand in hand with a seeming disregard for others and surprisingly many people are actually motivated by good intentions. When we are the victim of others’ behaviour, whatever the real motivators for it, we invariably make assumptions as to what their real intentions were and we generally assume the worst. For example, good intentions are always seen as bad intentions.

In the midst of conflict, it’s difficult to think the best of someone who has caused us some discomfort or pain. Indeed if this is the case, try at least to assume some neutral intent. The more we can have some emotional detachment from the conflict, the greater will be our successful management of the dynamic which leads to more productive outcomes.

Commence by stating your intent

To be effective at people communication there may seem to be many ‘dos and don’ts’. Rather than focusing on obtaining some perfect scores with these or following some particular formula, what is really important is your commitment to communicate in a more productive manner.

To this end the most single powerful technique to adopt in your advocacy is to state your intent in your opening few sentences. What follows may be imperfect, but invariably the listener will focus more on your first few words than what ensues. Therefore, what helps is something along the lines that: ‘This is a serious difficulty, and one about which I have some real strong feelings. However, I have come to learn more about your side of things and hope you will also listen to mine. If we both make some effort, surely there must be a pathway forward that suits both of us.’


It is puzzling how you may say something to a person and repeat that same message at some other time, and the message is received totally differently. Maybe some of the related suggestions in this article may shed some light on this conundrum. In conveying honest messages to people, timing is a vitally important consideration. However, sometimes this people communication area can seem more art than science and as Bernie Mayer has said, “Sometimes there is no ideal time to raise a difficult or painful issue, but there are often very bad times.” (Note 3)


I have often asked myself in relation to all the differing types of advocacy I have observed, what are the key overall factors accounting for the most competent (and poor) exponents of this skill set? There are two themes which stand out. When we are putting our side of things, the more we ‘lock’ ourselves into one of these choices to the exclusion of the other, the greater will be our ineffectiveness as an advocate. On the other hand, the adroit advocate demonstrates a real ability to:

Balance big picture versus detail – Often when feeling fervent about something we have a need to particularise everything when arguing our case. The ponderous delivery of excessive detail is counter-productive to good advocacy. The focus needs to be on emphasising quality rather than quantity.
Balance between content versus process – Obviously it’s important to be careful as to what is actually said or presented in written form in any crucial conversation such as a negotiation, mediation or other significant meeting. However, in a tense situation, we typically become so focused on the substance of our ideas, on the ‘what’, that we don’t pay sufficient attention to ‘the how’. I have heard so many superbly logical and legally well crafted speeches that have been totally ineffectual as they paid no heed to the types of considerations canvassed in this article. If changing someone’s ‘heart and mind’ is the goal, putting investment into the ‘how’ of presenting a message is more likely to return a better result than overly focusing on the ‘what’.
Back Tracking

As mentioned previously, cataloguing ‘dos and don’ts’ risks over complicating interpersonal communication. While in reality this can be complex stuff, it also can be beguilingly simple and easy. Think of what happens when we mis-dial one of those long distance telephone calls – one wrong digit and we are bounced out! Similarly with people communication our bumbling messages can receive stoney silences and negative reactions. However like the telephone situation, the best things to do is some ‘re-dialing’, try and try again and use some backtracking and re-phrasing of your message. If you employ communication practices that are a bit more productive, mistakes are rarely fatal. (Note 4)


Chapter 8, Gary Furlong, The Conflict Resolution toolbox: Models and Maps for Analyzing diagnosing and resolving Conflict: (wiley and Sons) 2005, isbn: 13: 9780470835173
Chapter 7, Bernard Mayer, The Dynamics of Conflict Resolution: A Practitioner’s Guide, (Wiley and Sons) 2000, isbn 13: 9780787950194
Chapter 6, Bernard Mayer, The Dynamics of Conflict Resolution: A Practitioner’s Guide, (Wiley and Sons) 2000, isbn 13: 9780787950194