Difficult Conversations – Bringing the Knowledge Together

Early in 2017 I ran a ten week online course entitled “Holding Difficult Conversations”. There were 27 participants and it went down very well! I want to make sure that everyone can make teh most of this learning so I am putting everything together here.

Week 1:          What Do You Really Want?

This first week looked at the notion of the “mindful pause” to help take a moment to consider what we really want in engaging in Difficult Conversations. Your article is here and your audio commentary presentation is here.

Week 2:         Managing Thoughts About Others

Difficult Conversations often involve developing strong feelings about the people we are dealing with, this is often not helpful! Read more here and hear/see more here

Week 3:          Managing Thoughts About Ourselves

Thoughts of our own success or failure feature greatly when we reflect on Difficult Conversations – learn more on how to manage this in your article here and listen to what I have to say here

Week 4:          Setting up the Best Environmental Context

Getting the space right when dealing with challenging conversations is crucial – find out in the article here and presentation here

Week 5:          Zero Sum Game – We Both Win

Find out more about seeking win-win solutions here

Week 6:          Keeping Yourself Safe

It’s very difficult to confidently dealing with Difficult Conversations if we don’t feel safe – here are some thoughts and a presentation here

Week 7:          Using Your Body

Our control over our body language is crucial – learn to use your shows to the best effect! The article is here and the presentation here.

Week 8:          Separating Positions from Needs and Interests

Understanding that the positions that people bring to an argument, may not be the best place for you to start understanding them, use “respectful inquiry” to help them talk about their unmet needs – here’s the article and here’s the presentation.

Week 9:          “Abuse” and Other Labels

My experience is that people often use labels to identify how they feel – this can get in the way of a fruitful conversation. Read the article here and look/listen to the presentation here

Week 10:        Learning from This and Other Experiences

It’s great to have a chance to read articles and watch presentations on a subject in which you are interested – but how do you help this to change the way you Hold Difficult Conversations in the future? Read how here.

Thanks everyone – do get in touch if you’d like to find out more





Learning From This Experience

Now in our final week we turn to bringing the learning together. I am inspired in writing this by an experience where I commissioned a highly successful and inspiring two-day course for a group of staff in a public sector organisation. The course was so well received that the participants leapt to their feet at the end of the second day and spontaneously applauded the presenter. Basking in his reflective glow, having been responsible for bringing him along, I turned to the person next to me who smiled back at me. Whilst continuing to applaud, she said…..

“That was absolutely brilliant! But it won’t work around here..”

And you know what? She was right. The training course, for all it’s useful skills and techniques, made no discernible difference to how people behaved. They just carried on doing what they had been doing anyway.

So What’s It All About?

I do hope that you have enjoyed this course. I do hope that you have found some of the ideas useful, inspiring even! I hope that you have found my style attractive, and – given that one purpose of doing this was to advertise my wares – I hope that you’ll consider me for work in your organisation in the future! But no, that’s not what it is all about.

What it’s all about is change. I could dress that up and say it’s about “development”, but actually what I really mean is change. To stop doing some of things you were doing. To stop some things that you were thinking even. To do something different. To change how we are with other people, when we have had a lifetime of doing something differently. That’s hard.

Change, Self Image and the Emotions

Everywhere I go I seem to see people bumping into each other, having negative unhappy experiences of other human beings. My lovely neighbours falling out about a planned house extension, never built, but the tension remains. Football fans returning from a promotion celebration jostling each other, mis-reading cues, metaphorically and literally treading on each others toes. Road rage everywhere! It’s heartbreaking!

In many ways, we use other people as mirror images of ourselves. What we see in their faces, we feel in our hearts. The imagined anger, resentment, disdain we divine in another’s countenance is felt as a wounding attack on who we are. No wonder it’s so painful!

Learning to have better difficult conversations is more than just learning some new skills. It’s about making some more fundamental changes in our view of ourselves. Bringing a more kindly, confident and more open approach to the world, and to ourselves.

Noticing Signs of Change

Forcing ourselves to change can be really useful – eating more healthily or making sure we include some exercise in our daily routine can be a great way to make some of the changes you want to see. Given that this change area is particularly difficult, I like to include the idea of “noticing”.

Noticing is bringing our attention to a particular part of our experience of life, in this case, how we are able to connect better with people with whom we are having difficulties. I would agree with the notion that we progress in the direction in which we inquire. If I spend the day noticing how well I’m able to work alongside others – negotiating, agreeing, managing differences of opinion – there is a strong chance that, at the end of that day, I will feel so much more able to continue to do the same the following day.

For a contrary experience, but using the same process of expiring the world, we all know those individuals who fall out with everybody. They are full of stories how so-and-so is incompetent and rude. Everywhere they go they meet horrible people, or at least people who turn out to be horrible. Their world is the same as ours – they have just developed the habit of noticing things that displease them. Why be that person? It sounds like hard work.

Listing and Describing

The practice of “noticing” can be either 1) largely passive, smiling to yourself as you are aware of the impact you are making or 2) more active, a deliberate attempt to chronicle these small changes that mean that you are making progress.

It helps here if you are a “list person” but you may have lots of otherwise of exploring and recording your life experience. Sit with a pen and some paper, if that’s for you and make a list of everything that’s happened recently that tells you that you are becoming more competent and confident in managing difficult conversations. Flick back over the last ten weeks of this course if that helps. As yourself the question “what else?”, in order to generate more thoughts. And dig further, don’t be content with “good meeting” what did you notice yourself doing that helped. What might other people have noticed about you? What else, what else? Make it a habit to notice of the small improvements you make.

Reflective Exercise

  • Think back – what are your experiences over the last week or so that have shown your ability in having difficult conversations?

  • What have you been most pleased to notice about the way in which you are developing good relationships, in work and out

  • What else? What else? What else?

  • You know the drill by now…


Thanks for staying with me everyone, all the way right through to the end. Many thanks. Phil

“Abuse” and Other Labels

My original intention was to write about how we could manage being on the receiving end of abuse whilst having difficult conversations. However something happened this week that has encouraged me to take a different look at the word abuse and how labelling behaviour – such as “abuse” – can get in the way of profitable conversations. I’m hope that there has been plenty of food for thought in the earlier section on “Keeping Yourself Safe” to help in those horrible moments when we are attacked whilst having difficult conversations.

Firstly I’d like to issue a health warning. Abuse has come to mean something in our society, helping us to identify dangerous and damaging behaviour from which the recipients deserve protection and help to recover. I am particularly referring to Domestic Abuse and Child Abuse. I am not expecting the men, women and children who have suffered such abuse to defend that label to me. They have called it and I hope that they get the support and protection they deserve.

Under stress people often find it hard to articulate their experience. They may be embarrassed to be asking for something they want and may experience some social awkwardness due to exposing themselves and their feelings in front of another person. In week eight we looked at how these often are expressed as positions. This week we’ll look at labels as a specific, and often more powerful form of position

In this article I’d like to draw on a recent experience to discuss the challenge that arises when unwanted behaviour is labelled rather than described.

How labelling can muck things up even more

This week I was supporting a team at a call centre in the midlands. I had been brought in to help develop even more successful work relationships in what had been described as a highly effective team. It hadn’t been my intention to uncover any unhappy experiences between the colleagues but that’s just what happened. One woman had claimed that she had a difficult phone call with one of her colleagues over the matter of changing their shift patterns. The first woman had described how the second had repeatedly asked her the same question in a sharp aggressive manner. The second woman had appeared shocked at this, but once she regained her composure, had really listened to her colleague’s complaints and began to apologise, saying that she was sorry that she’d come across like that. All was on course for a successful resolution when the first women said – “You abused me”.

This seemed to derail things considerably. Whilst a moment before the second person had been listening intently with considerably show of empathy, on hearing the allegations of being “abusive” she railed up and forcefully rebutted this suggestion. Things quickly began to get heated with the second woman claiming that the first had defamed her (another label). Suddenly I had my work cut out!

The practical and ethical challenges of labelling (rather then describing) behaviour

When faced with a label such as abuse, cruelty, exploitation, manipulation it can be hard to ignore what has been just said. These terms “up the ante” considerably, in effect it’s like throwing a grenade into a conversation. Of course whenever we are involved in a difficult conversation, we must keep personal safety a priority. If someone says that they have being abused, we must be prepared to check that the behaviour they are exposed to does not break any laws, agency policies or put anyone at risk.

If we are satisfied that people aren’t in danger then we have to return to the label, responding in a way similar to the way you would to a position. For example if you are in a one-to-one situation – “I’m sorry that you feel so badly treated, could you tell me what I/he/she/they did that left you feeling that way?”.

However if you are mediating between people, you have the second person now responding to the label and not the behaviour. Even if the second party agrees that, yes indeed, they have done the behaviour of which they have been accused, they may not agree that it constitutes the label. The first party, once they have used the label, won’t easily want to deny it and indeed we risk alienating them if we encourage them to do so.

Naming the Game

It’s seems perverse but sometimes we have to name the problems before we can start working on the solutions. What I managed to do in the situation above was partially successful and I would do it again – I’m always keen to hear alternative ideas though!

I summarised the situation as far as I saw it, empathetically and without judgement, stating that person A said that they had been abused and person B didn’t agree with that term. I asked them both if they would mind if we all set that term aside for a moment so we could talk about the behaviour which led person A to label it so. I could see that both parties were only partially convinced, but thought I’d “bat” on in the hope of progress!

Circular Questions

When we are feeling a bit stuck in a conversation such as this one, when we seem to be talking about the same things repeatedly I use circular questions to try to elicit more value from the same situation – for example…

  • (to person A) so how did that leave you feeling?
  • “I felt attacked, really got at and upset”
  • (to person B) what’s it like to hear A say that they felt so upset?
  • “well I was cross myself, I didn’t mean to hurt her feelings, only to make sure she’d heard me”
  • (to person A) what’s it like to hear that B didn’t actually want to hurt your feelings?
  • “well I’m glad but she still shouldn’t have talked to me that way”
  • (to person B) what was in your mind that made you want to make sure that B was listening?
  • “I was frustrated as we’d talked about this before and things hadn’t got any better”
  • (to person A) I guess you can hear that B felt frustrated and wanted things to be better – what’s your response to the way she felt?

You’ll notice that I am asking each party to respond to the other party’s feelings – this is not about what happened, which is open to interpretation, and certainly not the label. It’s about perceptions and emotional responses.

Reflective Exercise

  • Work hard to notice labels in the coming week – they don’t need to be negative – it could be such words as supportive, comforting, enabling – what happened to lead behaviour to labelled thus?
  • Notice when you slip into using a label yourself, be prepared to describe what you see of what you want to see
  • Notice when others use a label, ask them what they mean, what behaviour lies behind the label

Positions and Needs – Using Respectful Inquiry

This is a very interesting aspect of having difficult conversations with people when they are cross and argumentative. In such a context, people are often spouting their positions – demands often – that tend to raise the temperature of the difference between you.

As we know, being in conflict is highly stressful. It is a fairly common process that people get up a “head of steam” before speaking. They gather their feelings, beliefs – prejudices even – and let fly with invective that they feel best represents where they are in terms of their experience of the situation.

This is often part of the human experience and may be quite understandable. What can really help is to know what to do and perhaps more importantly what not to do when facing such an experience. In this article, we’ll be looking at these positions, what needs may lie behind them and how we can use a respectful inquiry to take the conversation onto more fertile ground.


Positions are often the carapace that people take on in difficult conversations. Here are some examples of such positions

  • You never listen to me!
  • Support staff are always last in line to be asked
  • Don’t worry, I’m used to feeling like the poor relation!

The temptation when you faced with such positions is to respond directly back to the position – indeed in many circumstances, using the actual words used by the other person is very useful – however in these circumstances it can lead you down an alley of no return. Let’s consider the first example…

Them:             You never listen to me!

You:                Yes I do!

Them:             No you don’t!

You:                I listened to you this morning when you told me about that film

Them:             Not really….

You:                Yes I did!

Them:             No you didn’t!

You:                But I did, you told me that guy you like was in it

Them:             You never listen to anything important

You:                Yes I do

You get the picture, its basically an “yes I did, no you didn’t” type of contradictory argument. The art here is to step away from the front line of this conversation to think what unmet needs might lie beyond the expression…”You never listen to me”…

Focusing on “Needs”

When faced with positions, it’s quite normal to respond to what is being said, often by contradicting the statement as above. However we rarely talk someone out of their position by responding directly to it, we risk that table-tennis, back and forth, yes you did, now I didn’t exchange.

Take the second example above – “Support staff are always last in line to be asked”. We might respond by reminding the speaker that they had the chance to raise their issue in the last staff survey. This may stop them in their tracks but maybe also send them away grumbling. So let’s ask ourselves – what unmet need may lie behind the statement? A simple – but compelling – need may be that they would like to be consulted more. If we are really interested in an engaged staff group, we may wish to explore this, but if the speaker repeats their initial statement, it could be very difficult to further the conversation. This is where respectful inquiry comes in.

Respectful Inquiry

One way of helping to get around this is to do some respectful guessing about what might lay beyond the position, what might be the unmet need that has caused the person to express themselves using that position.

Key to success here is that the inquiry is respectful and acknowledges that the other person is an expert on their experience, not you. The nightmare scenario here is the other person says something like “Don’t worry, I’m used to feeling like the poor relation!” and you respond triumphantly “Ahh I know what’s wrong with you, you don’t like being moved into the annex!”

You may be right of course, unfortunately people really hate being told what is wrong with them. You may have more luck utilising a genuine, respectful inquiring approach like “I hope that you don’t mind me asking but I wonder if you are feeling a bit apart from the rest of the company?”

Again you may be right or wrong. The hope here is to open out the conversation and take it away from the yes/no bouncing ball and onto a more constructive dialogue area. The other person may agree that they feel apart or demure and tell you it’s something else – the intention is to move away from the position into what may really be going on.

Now of course, it may not work at all. They may question your genuineness or maybe their position is so entrenched that you’ll have to do lots more listening. Maybe nothing will work! As I have said in earlier articles, all we can do is use the tools at our disposal to try to get a better outcome for the people we work with.

An example….

A couple of years ago my wife and I were on a group holiday with my son who was 16 at the time. It was an activity holiday with strenuous days and time to relax in the evening. One of the other members of the group was a man travelling alone who had told us that he had a son of a similar age to my boy. One evening my son was trying to convince this man that computer gaming was a valuable pastime. The guy was responding angrily, saying that they were a waste of time and should be banned. My son countered saying how creative and imaginative they were. The man was becoming increasingly agitated and I too was becoming concerned that he was being rather hard on my teenage son. Before interjecting I had a quick think about what kind of unmet need this man had to behave and speak in such a way. Then it dawned on me! “I’m wondering” I said, “if you may be a bit worried about your son and all the time he spends playing on the computer?”. I had struck lucky but it was evident by the tension that went from his face and body that that was indeed the case. I was then able to empathise with him and even my son joined in listen with concern as he talk about his son being isolated from classmates.

Reflective Exercise

A simple one this week. Just think back to difficult conversation and identify the positions that people were using and consider what unmet need lay behind them. You may also want to notice this phenomena in the conversations you have this week.

Phil Jones. April 2017










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