Who wants to learn ‘how to have difficult conversations?’



This is something I hear often yet no one really wants to know how to have DIFFICULT conversations. We want to minimize the difficult part.


So.. You know WHAT to say—but HOW will you say it?


When giving some tough news i.e. reorganization or layoffs at work or wanting to speak with family members or friends during some rough patches, we are often looking for some words to guide the conversation(s) we are about to have. 


Many of our executive clients and managers are given scripts at work, as a guide and they tell us those scripts provide an element of predictability that can feel comforting.


Yet, some of the leaders we work with review their scripts or practice conversations with us with a growing sense of unease, overwhelm and apprehension. Why?


They are realizing that a script doesn’t tell you how to deal with your “stuff” during these conversations. For example, scripts don’t address the emotional thoughts that many have when preparing to layoff staff—thoughts like:

  •  How will I respond to John—who has a 3-year old boy and a new baby on the way—as this is his family’s sole source of income?
  • How will I respond when Emily hears that her job is terminated and asks, “How will I pay for my daughter’s medical treatment?”
  • How can I be empathetic and productive and not go crazy trying?


This internal “How?” conversation is rooted in the part of the brain that controls emotion—the limbic system—which can literally override logical, rational function. In unpredictable circumstances, the human brain reacts in the same way it does to a threat to survival: its ancient fear apparatus kicks into high gear.


Fortunately, neuroscience has proven that it’s possible to reconfigure the brain’s emotional patterns and responses. Knowing this—and having leadership strategies and tools based on the findings of neuroscience—it is possible to go beyond the script. It is possible to be empathetic during layoffs for example, while remaining an effective and productive leader.


Our focus when coaching leaders through tough times is to show them how to refocus the brain—theirs and the brains of their team members—to shift internal conversations. Rather than simply riding the emotional “how” roller coaster, our goal is to understand the role emotions play on refocussing the brain for the more productive “Do” conversation:

  • What will I do to listen to what matters most, for both of us in this conversation?
  • What can I do to shift my perspective on this situation?
  • What am I able to do to care for my team,  and maintain continuity?


Changing the brain’s tendency to react primally and become stuck in emotional groundhog day takes practice, and is totally achievable. For even more success, it may be the most important skill both to acquire and to impart to others. That makes it worth investing the time to do the work.


A leadership coach can be the guide you need to travel down this path efficiently, to implement new cognitive strategies and reappraise leadership challenges in more satisfying ways!





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