Volume 46, January 2005: Having Difficult Conversations

Keyzine: An E-zine for Leaders about the People Side of Business

This is a monthly electronic magazine for anyone who wants to be a better leader, coach, facilitator, or simply, to tune up their people skills. It is a complimentary publication, devoted to the next evolution of Quality Thinking.

Publisher: © Key Associates, LLC, 2005 ISSN # 1545-8873

“I am a human being; nothing that is human is foreign to me.” — Ancient African Saying

“Truth spoken directly from the heart and skillfully illumined by the mind has a power that cannot be eliminated.” — Christopher Bach

“A mistake is an event the full benefit of which you have not yet turned to your advantage.” — Edwin Land, Founder of Polaroid


  • What’s Hot in Leadership
  • Maintaining Yourself as a Leader
  • Frequently Asked Questions from Leaders
  • Educational Opportunities
  • Useful Websites & Newsletters
  • Articles/Publications

What’s Hot in Leadership

  • Mastering the art of dialogue rather than just “telling.”
  • Partnering over problems – thinking together for solutions
  • Shifting from blame to “what happened and why?”
  • Accepting bad news without throttling the messenger.
  • Speaking the truth up front.

Maintaining Yourself as a Leader

In your leadership role, you are no doubt called on to have conversations that are difficult – budget problems, performance issues, ethical questions, terminations, etc. Sleepless nights, fears of liability, retaliation, embarrassment. Avoidance, third party consultation, planning, rehearsing. Haven’t you been there? What if you could shift your mind to a frame where the actors involved could have a healthy dialogue? That brought a learning perspective to the situation. In this frame, the audience or opposing parties become your partners. Lean into the conversation, invite their perspectives, and learn together. Then wire the learnings into improvements.

Frequently Asked Questions

“I dread having difficult performance reviews or confronting people problems. Advice?”
If you avoid, you collude. Stone, Patton and Heen have written a book that will help all of us with these Difficult Conversations. They suggest shifting from a “message stance” to a “learning stance.” This means inviting the other person into the conversation to help us figure things out. You want to create an environment where each others’ stories can be told and heard. Where we are curious and not judgmental. Where we are safe to express feelings and share our viewpoints. The problem becomes the difference between the stories, and as partners, we work on collaborative solutions.
“How do you shift from a ‘Culture of Blame?’”
Change the language from “blame” to “contribution.” All behavior occurs within a system, all parts of which are by nature, interdependent. Each person involved has made a contribution to the problem and owns some responsibility. Begin exploring it that way. The language shifts from being full of answers to being full of questions. What and how questions, not who and why. Speaking from the “I” perspective, not “You did … ” Not right or wrong, just different. The practice of inquiry vs. advocacy (Peter Senge).
“It is so easy to get competitive and fall into a mindset of winning at the conversation.”
This is common in our culture, which applauds debate and argument. Discussion--same root as percussion and concussion. Breathe and start the “dialogue” with an intention of a Win-Win outcome. Then employ a tool called Structured Discussion. Every party to the discussion uses Fisher and Ury’s model of saying “what they believe and why (logic trail, rationale, data for and against).” Increase listening by having each speaker repeat the last person’s message to their satisfaction, before making their own point. Go Round Robin until every person has made their point and exposed their thinking. If a solution is called for, use the skills of Mediation (Keyzine, Volume 7) to form a Bridging Statement that combines the interests of all parties. Brainstorm solutions that optimize the interests, and select out a plan, based on criteria you jointly set.
“When I have bad news to deliver, how do I start the conversation?”
Here are some introductions that have worked for me:
  • I have some information that might be helpful to you.
  • There’s something going on with … Help me understand.
  • I know you are concerned about … Here is what I think is happening.
  • When you … this seems to happen. I know it is not your intention.
  • If I knew something that could help you be more successful, would you like to hear about it?


Learn, Do, Check, Act: Online course on Conflict: Communicating Through Conflict.

Training/consultation in managing business relationships: Vantage Partners.

Managing difficult conversations: Difficult conversations.

Training in mastering difficult conversations: Mastering Difficult Conversations.

E-learning on managing difficult conversations: Managing Difficult Conversations v2.

For assistance in Mediation and education on Conflict Management, contact the author.

Useful Websites & Newsletters

Relevant Keyzines: Mediating Conflict, Effective Listening, and Thinking Together.

Preparing to address a performance problem: Great bosses know.

The El Nino Syndrome: Culture of Blame: The Blame Culture.

Spiritual guidance for difficult conversations: Regent Publications.


Books are linked to Amazon.com descriptions.


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