Not Simple, But There Are Principles

When it comes to having difficult conversations, the methods are as much an art as they are a science. Individuals who come together to work through a conflict bring with them many dimensions of relational depth, personality, character, and background that contribute to whether that conversation is perceived as a success or not.

There are no simple methods or answers for conflict. There are however, proven principles that give each person a fighting chance (pun intended) to walk away with a resolution. There are many avenues to discuss, but this article will focus on one key aspect of a difficult conversation; Respect. If there is conflict, then there is likelihood that trust is at risk or broken as well. Trust issues, when played out, can reveal themselves in attitudes and behaviors that are not respectful. The more emotionally heated the issue, the more respect is at risk.

Any relationship where two or more people are willing to meet and resolve conflict has the inherent DNA to resolve it, regain trust, establish respect and work toward a mutual understanding in peace. If warring nations can do it, you can as well.

At The Root

At the root of most conflict is an unmet expectation.  Regardless of whether the expectation is realistic, it is either met or unmet. For example, “I expected you to finish those reports by Wednesday and they are not done.”  or “I hoped we could spend time together today and talk about our future and you didn’t make time.”  These examples can go on and on and range in severity. “You told me you would always love me, and now you say you don’t.” Or “You said my job was secure and now you are letting me go.” The resulting emotions, acted upon or not,  are the reigning fruit where the roots of trust and ultimately respect will be lost.

These types of meetings involve risk. There are cases where some individuals are entrenched in their views, won’t move, or perceive themselves as above reproach. People in that mindset often won’t be enthusiastic about meeting. Sometimes they will meet in order to be heard or say they complied and tried. That situation requires a different approach with mediation, and a different topic all together. However, in every case, remember the person in front of you is human like you,  flawed like you and most often wants resolution…like you.

Seven Ways To Have That Conversation Respectfully

  1. Be willing to hear hard things
  2. Be clear with your intent and desired outcome
  3. Be solution and common ground minded
  4. Be careful yet honest with your words
  5. Be sure to ask questions
  6. Be ready to forgive and ask for forgiveness
  7. Be willing to improve and change

Be willing to hear hard things.

Be open to the possibility of being wrong. We all have blind spots and have hurt or offended others, often unintentionally. One way to show respect for another person is to validate their hurt. Give the other person the same chance you would want to say the things that have hurt them. Be sure to listen well, be humble, and  hear how your actions have effected them. The person may share these items because they want to improve the relationship, not hurt it.  It may sting, but it can make you and the situation better, if you are willing to listen.

Be clear with your intent and desired outcome.

From the beginning, establish goals. A question to consider asking is, “What do we hope to accomplish in this meeting?”  Agree on goals that allow you to determine how the meeting will be successful. This creates a very important aspect of relational safety.  Difficult conversations involve a level of vulnerability for everyone involved. When the stakes are high the need for safety is even higher. Speak your intentions clearly and concisely so each person understands them.

Be solution and common ground focused.

It is important to stay focused on solutions that work for each person. There is something important to each person that has caused the hurt feelings, missed expectations, or offense. Finding areas to agree upon will help each person focus on solutions and not handle the issue the same way in the future.  Things like, “I believe we both agree that it is important to maintain high educational standards in our school. I am wondering how we can find a way to resolve this issue in a way that benefits everyone without compromising that standard.”  Apply similar types of phrases to help discover and celebrate agreement.

Be careful, yet honest with your words.

To varying degrees, people will tend to come out swinging or head for the hills. (Fight or Flight) The goal is to speak honestly in order to articulate root issues and understand future relationship in peace. For the fighter, slow your words and find ways to say things that help foster safety. Use phrases like,”seems like”, “I sense that”, “I have wondered if”, “I am trying to understand.” etc. For the flight person, do not give up on conversation. It can be tempting to simply say, “you’re right” to simply move on. Do not give up. Speak your mind.  It is a fallacy to think you can avoid, mask or dismiss the issue and gain peace and trust.

Be sure to ask clarifying questions.

Because you are likely going to hear things which you do not agree with, it is important to ask clarifying questions to the statements you encounter. For every statement there is a reason. For every reason, there is something that is emotionally and/or philosophically important to the person to whom you are speaking. By asking questions you are ascribing safety and value to the person. You are also getting to the heart of the issue rather than focusing on the problem only. See the post on powerful questions for more details.

Be ready to forgive and ask for forgiveness.

In business and in personal relationships, offenses can be forgiven. Forgiving is not forgetting, nor does it remove a consequence entirely. Forgiveness is choosing to not hold the agreed upon offense against that person in thought, word and deed. It is a process that can begin in this type of discussion. In the process there are things that each person will discover they have contributed to the issue. Be willing to understand the hurt (intended or not) and ask them to forgive you. Likewise, be willing to hear their apology and offer the promise to work through it peacefully. This is not a quick fix, this is a genuine commitment to offer true peace and reconciliation.

Be willing to improve and change.

Too frequently, people will hear how their words or actions have caused pain then rush to apologize without any resulting change. It takes a sincere and emotionally intelligent person to acknowledge the hurt, improve and change. Admitting failure is only the first step. Demonstrated effort, intentionality and progress allows people to rebuild trust and regain respect. Allow trust to be built by committing to learning, growing and ultimately changing for the better.


These 7 steps to having difficult discussions are just the beginning. They can be the catalyst toward healthy relationships and future success. If you see patterns that you wish you improve in your leadership or team, our ShiftAgent coaching program or one of our seminars may be right for you. We are here for you, contact us and we will be glad to assist.