Managing the Environment

We can’t always plan where we hold difficult conversations, sometimes they come upon us in the most inappropriate places and times. All we can do is do the best we can to create the best environment.

Let’s Keep This Between Ourselves

If it is safe to do so, privacy is critical in having difficult conversations. Firstly it allows people to speak without interference and interruption, it allows the conversation to take place without the fear of being overheard and the impact that this may have on the ability of the parties concerned to share their feelings or to talk honestly. It also prevents any potential “drama” from the conflict leaking out into other areas of the workplace – it just doesn’t help!

Being able to think on your feet here is crucial. Spotting the availability of an unused office or even a storeroom and suggesting that “let’s chat here?” could be useful. Where no such venue is readily available, suggest that one be sought so that you can talk properly. If other people are present, consider whether it would be appropriate to ask them to leave whilst you talk.

We should of course be mindful that an invitation to change venue should be seen as just that, an invitation. Both parties should be agreeable to this. Any sense of threat should be avoided to avoid the danger of a “let’s take this outside” scenario.

The Environment as Communication

Where we meet is an important message.  Albert Merhabian highlights the important place the paralinguistic element of communication play in conveying attitudes. Paralinguistic elements include the venue for meetings – for example it is said that the queen only ever smells wet paint wherever she goes, because everywhere she visits, people spruce the place up. Why? That’s because the queen is “important”. So if we make the place look nice for important people, what does that say for those whom we don’t tidy up for?

This doesn’t mean that you need to reach for the vacuum cleaner when you next have an argument with someone. However your consideration in choosing or arranging a suitable venue is likely to be communicated to the other party as a message that you are interested and have the interests of better understanding at heart.

Give Me Some Space

In week seven we’ll look more closely at the role of body language on successful communication during conflict. When it comes to thinking about space and the body we must consider proximity and power in where we position ourselves.

Whilst some people are more comfortable being physically closer to others, we know that some people prefer greater space. A few basic guidelines my be

·      Careful with touch. Difficult conversations may include someone who is upset and, in such circumstances, we may consider that they need comfort. We can demonstrate our empathy with what we may say and with our voice tone, however in most situations, touch should probably be avoided. In such highly charged circumstances, communication is rife for misinterpretation and a hand on the shoulder may be construed as controlling or too-intimate. The exception of course may be in the event of comforting our children or those close family members or friends where we can have more trust that such a gesture should not be misconstrued.

·      Head height. I would try, if possible, to arrange myself so that my head would be at the same height as the person with whom I’m having the difficult conversation. This may at first glance seem petty, maybe ridiculous. However if we consider the alternatives – being seen as looming over the other person or passively looking up at them – we can see that head height is actually a form of communication.

·      Mind Your Distance. We would all recognise that being too close or too far could be a problem in difficult conversations but how do we decide in what is the right distance? We probably need to rely on a combination of our intuition and noticing. If it feels too close or too far, it may well be. If the other person looks like they’d like to get further away or closer (threats of violence aside) we may like to respond. When seated I would recommend sitting in such a way that means that neither party could necessarily reach out and touch the other, without changing their body position of reaching forward.


Reflective Exercise

1.     When you’re next meeting someone – not necessarily a difficult conversation – just notice how you get yourself comfortable in terms of space between you. What allows you to feel safe in this setting?

2.     Consider the rooms available to you to meet with customers, service users and other colleagues. Do they communicate welcome and an appreciation towards those people.

3.     When you’re meeting with other people, what do you do with your body? Imagine that there’s a camera set up in the corner, what would it show?

Managing Thoughts About Ourselves


Last weeks piece was about Managing Thoughts About Others and therefore it’s not big a leap to consider the importance of Managing Thought About Ourselves. Arguably what we think about ourselves in relation to difficult conversations might be considered as the most crucial aspect of our ten-week journey into Holding Difficult Conversations – what we say to ourselves, about ourselves, may be the key to unlocking the skills needed for successful difficult conversations.

We Are Our Thoughts

If we ask ourselves what we feel about conflict the response may telling. We might reply with “the whole thing makes me nervous”, “frankly I’d rather walk away than have a row”, “I don’t let anyone walk over me”. These indications are either describing our responses to difficult conversations or, in the last example, our defence from the impact of facing upsetting situations.

The suggestion that “we are our thoughts” infers that whilst our answer to that question are descriptions of our responses to conflict, they may also have an impact on how we guide ourselves when facing such situations. If we were to ask mediators, warzone arbitrators and maybe police officers facing many a Friday night fracas, we are likely to get answers like “well I keep calm and focused”, “I remember that isn’t about me and try to listen”. What we say to ourselves may be crucial to help us remain resourceful when up against it. When conflict arises saying to yourself, “well this isn’t nice but I can handle it”, “I am someone who is strong enough to keep listening, even when people are being horrible” may be one of the small things that keeps us present and listening.

On a side note, what people say about their attitudes towards conflict may sometimes be interpreted differently. Some years ago I was facilitating a large group in an organisation that was experiencing considerable change and people were very cross. I was assisted in running these events by a young man from the HR department who was, coincidentally, training to be a priest. In the rather intimidating introductory session a female group member fixed me with a steely stare and proclaimed “I think you’ll find that I don’t suffer fools gladly”. Trying my best not to look unshaken I smiled and nodded and continued with the session. My supportive co-worker for the day sidled up to me whilst the group were busy with the exercise and said, drily “I sometimes find that when people say that, they really mean…I’m rude.” 

I chuckle about that to this day.

Our Background and Presuppositions About Ourselves

We bring to conflictual situations notions about ourselves, who we are, what we are like as people and ideas of how conflict should be handled. Our childhood experiences of difference of opinion may have taught us that conflict is scary and unsafe, we may have seen adults being out of control and damaging those around us. In many cultures men are socialised to associate disagreement with violence and may have internalised ideas of “not backing down” or compromise as unmanly, a sign of weakness.

None of this needs to get in the way of being able to connect with others whom we disagree with although it can be useful to recognise when we are operating on stimulus which may be historical. It’s useful just to notice the sensations we experience. Marshall Rosenberg, who invented Non-Violent Communication – of which more in later weeks – described the kind of angry responses to others, whether internal or external, as being like “jackal” chatter. When asked what to do when we experience that kind of angry monologue in ourselves, replied that we should just notice it, suggesting that we “enjoy the jackal show”. He didn’t mean that this chatter was entertaining, but that we should watch the jackals come and go and not fight them.

Let’s Stop Being So Hard on Ourselves

Adults are very much invested in being competent. We like to feel on top of our world and competent in our day-to-day life. With so many folks worried about difficult conversations, it can’t be surprising that there is a great deal of shame around such challenging interactions.

I’m going to suggest that we give ourselves a break. It’s good to reflect on the convenient belief from last week – “WE too are doing the best we can with the resources available to us”. When we hear ourselves admonish the way we have managed such conflict, let’s not be too hard.

Most people would do anything than have a difficult conversations – even by attending this course you are at the cutting edge. Let’s celebrate that!

Reflective Exercise

  1. Notice what happens in your body when in conflict. Write down what happens to your body, what thoughts come into your head and any feelings that you’re able to name. This is just information
  2. Reflect on what you say to yourself about being conflict. Change the script a little. “I am confident when the conversations gets heated” or “I am pretty good at explaining things to angry people”.
  3. Once again lets go with “I am doing the best I can with the resources I have available to me”


Phil Jones March 2017

Managing Thoughts About Others

We will all be familiar with the experience of “falling out” with someone. We may have walked away from a challenging encounter muttering under our breath about the other person. Those of us old enough to remember “Wacky Races” will recall Mutley’s wheezing, bitter grumbling about his master/foil Dick Dastardly. Motley’s resentment, (see here)and constant canine wordless spluttering, is a thread that runs through the show – reflecting our own internal monologue when someone we are in conflict with comes to mind.

Try it now – think of someone you don’t like. What are the thoughts that come to mind? You may notice that once these thoughts get going, they are hard to stop. The question for those interested in improving the way in which they hold difficult conversations is – do these thoughts help?

In this article I’ll be suggesting that there things we can do to help ourselves, and others, in such situations.

Making Sense of the World: Experiential Shorthand

The human brain makes a great job of helping us to negotiate the world, constantly taking our unconscious observations and turning them into manageable messages that help us make sense of our experience. On a cold winter’s afternoon we stumble upon a candle lit coffee house, full of the aroma of fresh coffee and warm muffins and we think “cozy”. Our brain lets us off the process of listing all the pleasant features of the café – smiling staff, warm lamps, deep yielding cushions and just lets us know that it’s “nice”.

This will work too with people we fall out with. Someone mentions their name in a meeting and, unbidden, thoughts come to mind – “difficult”. “awkward”, “annoying” and maybe even more disparaging. The question is, do these thoughts help or hinder us in arranging an outcome that is good for all of us?

Confirmatory Bias

This is a subtle, insidious process that can have a substantial impact on the way we deal with our life experiences and other people. It comes from the notion that we make fairly quick evaluations and then look for evidence to confirm our assessment. We have an experience of discomfort with someone, a minor disagreement for example, and we say to ourselves “ah they are that sort of person”. When next our paths cross we may find ourselves looking for evidence that our earlier assessment is correct.

I’m not saying that we do this because we are “bad” – these unconscious processes are understandable and may be very helpful. If you should be so lucky to be swimming in the barmy waters off the coast of California and see a large dorsal fin heading towards you, your response will probably not to mentally evaluate the risk of shark attack in this area and how your dress or behaviour may attract a Great White. You are more then likely to think “Shark – let’s get out of here!” You may not even think, you may just react. That response to a sense of threat is crucial to survival. When we have to deal with certain people – family members, colleagues, staff, service users – our negative thoughts may not help us to find the best way of helping them to collaborate with us.

Arguably a more dangerous aspect of confirmatory bias arises from prejudicial stereotypes. Remember “hug a hoody”? I know that many of my neighbours children where large hooded tops – its just their thing! However when walking along the street and seeing a youth coming towards me, face obscured by yards of material, I simply can’t help feeling a tingle of fear. I have taken everything I have heard about young people so dressed and created fear in myself. I’m sure that we can think of groups in society that cause us to react in certain ways – how will we manage this bias when dealing with them?

Convenient Beliefs

So how do we deal with these experiences of being human? How can we manage these thoughts about people to help us connect with them?

One useful process is to develop a set of “convenient beliefs” to help us become more resourceful in difficult situations. Convenient beliefs are thoughts and beliefs about people that seek to bring some open-minded balance to a situation to help us have the best conversation. I don’t claim that “convenient beliefs” are true – just that they may be helpful in many cases. Let’s try one.

“Everyone is doing the best they can, with the resources they have at their disposal”

We may encounter some behaviour that seems very strange, or some performance that we may feel is incompetent – just not good enough – and we decide to raise it with the person involved. We can see that starting out this process by reflecting on the above belief rather than they are “mad” or “stupid” may help us to describe our observations and listen to the other person’s response. We could argue that the convenient belief can help us be more compassionate – whilst that may be so I prefer to think that it opens up possibilities for change. Let’s try another.

“The success of communication is defined by the receiver”

There’s little more frustrating than telling someone something repeatedly and them not seeming to “get it”. We may respond to this frustration by putting the responsibility on the other person’s shoulders. By adopting the above convenient belief we may be encouraged to look a little more carefully on how we have communicated.

“Everyone is trying to cooperate – it’s just a question of finding out how”

Again an example of a convenient belief that, if adopted, can help us explore our own resources to increase flexibility in how we approach difficult situations. Rather than write people off as “resistant”, this belief encourages us to look hard – and listen – to how we can help people collaborate with us.

Remember, I’m not claiming that these believes are “true” but that they may help. Should the un-hugged hoody slip a sharp blade out of their pocket and demand my wallet – I shan’t necessarily think to myself “everyone is doing the best they can…” at the time.

Although it may help later 😉

Reflective Task

  1. Notice your response to someone with whom you are “at odds”. What thoughts come to mind, what bodily sensations do you experience? Don’t try to change these feelings, they are useful in helping you make sense of that world.
  2. Consider that these sensations are “information” rather than truths. They tell you that you are challenged by dealing with this person.
  3. Apply a convenient belief. Consider that this person is doing the best they can with the resources they have available.  This may be hard. You may consider that they don’t seem to be trying at all! However sit with the thought that what you are experiencing is the best they can. If you have a role with this person – as manager, worker or family member – what can you do to help them develop further resources.


Phil Jones










What Do You Really Want: The Mindful Pause

Beginning, or finding ourselves embroiled in a difficult conversation is a challenging experience. In the moment the sensation is often one of breathless survival, even preparing for an encounter can be sleep-losing experience!

Although our energised state lets us believe that we know what we’re doing, we are quite often operating at the survival end of Maslow’s needs. Will we be hurt? Will this situation resolve with our self-esteem intact? Often what we most immediately want to is to get out unhurt. If we do so without getting too bruised we feel an understandable sense of achievement. In order to survive we may be aggressive, defensive, maybe even placatory. Keeping a focus on what we really want may be extremely challenging in this context – many people think it’s impossible! Don’t forget, additional material and a sound and vision version of this article can be found here.

Acknowledge our Feelings

There will be feelings – it may be that you find yourself in confrontation that you hadn’t expected or a difficult meeting that you have been avoiding for months. It is highly likely that you will feel something. Acknowledge that this is happening and give yourself the message that this is understandable and may even be useful.

If it’s just about “winning” then think again

In our distressed state we often mistake our wish to protect ourselves with the urge to get our own back. One phrase that expresses this phenomena is that “hurt people, hurt people”. Chances are that you want a good outcome which maintains good relationships between you and those you have conflict with. Even the mildest amongst us experiences the wish to be triumphant in difficult situations. Work to manage these sensations. In week two of this course we’ll be looking further at how our views and beliefs about other people can impact on how we have difficult conversations.

Asking Yourself – “What are My Best Hopes from this Conversation?”

The Best Hopes question is borrowed from Solution Focus work. This isn’t an airy-fairy question. In the circumstances you are in – the same people, the same demands, the same resources available – how would you know that your contribution to the conversation will have enabled you to (1) say what you wanted to say? (2) listen to the other persons point of you? (3) reach some form of plan or accommodation which will help you in the future? Another great Best Hopes question is, “how will I know that I will be at your best?”

Note this isn’t about changing other people, but does encourage you to think about how you’ll be behaving, talking and thinking in that conversation that will give you the best chance to get what you want.

Say What You Want

Very simply, it is much more useful to work with what you want, rather than what you don’t want. If you find yourself identifying a don’t want, then start to construct what you do want. For example you may want your youngest offspring not to be so messy at home, but communicating “nots” may come across as critical in a way that generates resistance. Also a description of what you do want can help him or her know what would please you. We will be looking at Non Violent Communication later in the course, but if you wanted a quick look now, I have a presentation here.

Building, Continuing and Enhancing Connections

This is of of considerable importance. Difficult Conversations take place, almost always, in the context of a network of interdependent human relationships. Consider the workplace, your family, the street in which you live, your clients or the users of the service you offer. The connections between us are important, help our sense of wellbeing and ability to do our jobs. How we behave whilst Having Difficult Conversations is crucial in the maintenance of these important connections. In fact Difficult Conversations or conflict are the greatest threats to these important connections.

Does what you really want include elements that will help your future relationship? I would suggest that maintaining a focus on a continued relationship is crucial for the overwhelming majority of difficult conversations.

Case study Jenny.

Jenny was delighted to be leaving a job that she had tired of and, in many ways, outgrown. She was preparing for her exit interview with a line manager who she felt had neglected her over the last eighteen months. Jenny was angry and hurt by her boss’s behaviour and was bristling to give her a piece of her mind. Jenny slept little the night before the meeting. On reflecting on the Best Hopes question Jennie decided that she wanted to leave the meeting having told her manager how much she’d appreciated her help in her early days in the role and how she would have liked her boss’s advice more over the last year or so. Jenny also decided that she’d like to ask her boss for some feedback which would help her in her new job.

As the conversation flowed Jennie could see her boss was listening intently to her and decided at that stage to say that she had felt let down by her often being out of the office so often and unavailable. Her manager was initially upset to be told this and had to leave the room briefly. On her return but acknowledged that she had been called to attend to business elsewhere.

Jenny realised the benefit of the continued goodwill with her former manager and how much she could learn from this experience and the meeting ended well with both people feeling that much had been learnt.

Reflective Exercise

Q1 When you have managed a successful difficult conversation – what have you done? What have you been pleased to notice about yourself?
Q2 Think about a difficult conversation in the future

  • What are your feelings about this situation?
  • What are your best hopes for this conversation – an outcome that would be good for you and the others involved?
  • How might you describe to the other parties what you want?

Good luck everyone – please do get in touch should you have any questions of comments –







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