5 keys to handling tough conversations

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Most of us avoid difficult conversations. It’s highly stressful and there’s always the potential to get hurt or hurt someone.

But life can’t be smooth-sailing all the time. Sometimes, we need to go through tough conversations to resolve issues, right a wrong, or improve relationships.

Examples of tough conversations:

  • Handling an irate customer
  • Complaining about a bad product or service
  • Breaking bad news to someone (for example firing an employee)
  • Confronting someone with a different opinion
  • Admitting you are wrong

These conversations are hard but they are essential. To be able to do this, remember these five points the next time you are (or about to be) in a tough conversation:

  1. Manage your emotions

    It’s important to stay rational and calm so that you’ll be able to gather your thoughts and speak clearly. Don’t meet the other person’s level of anger when arguing. No agreement will be reached during a shouting match. It can also lead to violence which can get both of you in deeper trouble.

    Pause when emotions are running high. Don’t tell the other person to stay calm because it might have the opposite effect. Instead, let the other person speak first and listen. Do your best to keep your voice at a normal tone when you answer.

  2. Know your objective

    Be clear about what you need to accomplish. Is it to reach a consensus or agreement? Is it to convey feedback or a solution to help someone (or something) become better or more effective? It’s important to remember your objective because it’s easy to get sidetracked. Always move it back to the resolution that you’re working for.

  3. Listen and validate

    Focus on what the other person is saying and try to see things from their perspective. Listening and validating the other person’s experience can help them calm down and make them more receptive to what you have to say. What does validating mean? It means recognizing the other person’s experience or perspective as important and worthwhile. For example:

    Employee 1: I wanted to talk to you about your attitude at the meeting this morning. I didn’t appreciate the way you dismissed my feedback and suggestions about the X Project.

    Employee 2: You deserved it! You were asking so many questions about the project when you clearly don’t understand the amount of work I did to launch it. I worked day and night to be able to meet our deadline. It’s an amazing project and you are probably just jealous. You were demeaning my work and accomplishments in front of our bosses and the team!

    Employee 1: That was not my intention at all. But I understand how you feel. You’ve spent many hours and so much effort to build it, you have the right to be protective about your work. As I have said in the meeting, X Project is an amazing tool with a great potential to benefit the entire company. I wanted to share constructive feedback with you to make sure that all your hard work won’t go to waste and benefit more than one department in the organization.

    Employee 2: OK. I may have been too emotional this morning with everything that has been going on. Let’s meet to talk more about your feedback and suggestions.

    Employee 1: Looking forward to it. I appreciate your time.

  4. Stay on topic

    Be clear about the issue and keep the conversation about it. State facts as clearly and respectfully as you can. Don’t bring up related issues or past mistakes (unless they are relevant). Also don’t assume anything, just keep an open mind. Most importantly, never resort to personal insults or name-calling when the conversation heats up. It’s hurtful and immature. Don’t do the same when the other person does this. Take the high road and stay on track.

  5. End amicably

    As much as possible, end on an agreement and in good terms with the other person. Be gracious if you “win” the argument and the other person admits their fault (if it’s that type of argument). Never gloat. If the conversation does not end in an agreement, it is perfectly fine to agree to disagree. The video below shows what language to use to do this properly:

    Expressions for conceding a point in English, Jennifer ESL
    Article updated January 31, 2023.
    Sources: This is how to have tough conversations, E.B. Johnson, Start it up; and How to have difficult conversations at work, Ashira Prossack, Forbes. Accessed October 6, 2021.

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Community Resources

Sharpen your conversational skills by attending our Virtual Coffee Chats regularly. Join in every Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday at 10 am on skype. Register today!

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Everyday Conversations

Here is an example of a hard conversation that was handled well:
Mauro: I wanted to talk to you about your attitude at the meeting this morning. I didn’t like how you ignored my ideas and comments about the X Project.

Jeff: You deserved it! You asked a lot of questions about the project, even though you didn’t understand how much work I put into it. I worked really hard to make sure it was done on time. It’s an amazing project and you’re probably just jealous. You were making my work and accomplishments look bad in front of our bosses and the team!

Mauro: I’m sorry if I made you feel bad. I understand why you are protective of your work. You have put in a lot of time and effort to build it. I said in the meeting that X Project is a great tool. It can help the whole company. I wanted to give you some advice so that your hard work will be useful and help more than one department.

Jeff: I understand that I may have been too emotional this morning. I want to talk more about your feedback and suggestions. Let’s meet to discuss this further.

Mauro: I’m excited for it. Thank you for your time.

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