Posted On October 16, 2016

people sitting in front of window having coffee

Perhaps you recognise some of these situations:

  • a request from a manager that seemed unfair
  • a decision that ignored your expert input
  • a colleague who dominated the conversations and never seemed to listen
  • a lack of cooperation from a colleague or department.

Situations are classified as difficult when the issues are important to you or your work and you think something is wrong. They present an opportunity for us to have one or more “difficult conversations”. The problem is, our emotional response to the situation often puts us at risk of handling our communications badly.

Once our emotions kick in, adrenaline is released and we are hardwired to respond with a “fight or flight” response. That means it is natural for us to either get defensive and angry, or decide to say nothing and maybe even remove ourselves from the situation altogether. If we allow our emotions to control our responses then the subsequent communications, or lack thereof, can lead to a breakdown in our relationships, long term resentment, lack of motivation and decreased productivity.

Developing the skills to identify difficult situations as they occur, to recognise when our emotions kick in and then to successfully navigate these challenging moments is a crucial business skill. By communicating constructively, you provide a great opportunity to develop positive trusting relationships and role model a high level of personal leadership.

Here’s how to approach a difficult situation.

  1. Unpack the situation to discover what’s really going on

It’s important to unpack the facts from our assumptions. To do this we need to understand that we feel the impact of a situation or a person’s behaviour and assume “intent”. If we act on our assumptions, issues can quickly escalate as our assumed intent is often completely wrong. We don’t want to be the one who creates difficult situations, so make sure you unpack the facts and re-evaluate the situation before going any further.

  1. Hold a “difficult conversation” for a positive outcome

Stay calm

Take a few deep breaths to help yourself relax and prevent your mind from racing off and drawing quick and emotive conclusions. Take your time and be conscious to rein in any unhelpful emotions.

Provide an effective opener

An effective conversation opener will establish and clarify a shared aim, negate any fears from the other party and demonstrate respect. Asking permission to have the conversation is a great tactic.

For example:

“Hi Sven, I’d really like to have a chat with you about your participation in team meetings. I’d like to work out a way that we can get to hear your ideas and give the other team members a chance to contribute so that we can decide which ideas are best suited to our unit. Is it OK with you if we have that chat sometime this week? When would be a good time by you?”


You can learn all there is to know about a difficult situation and largely diffuse the issue by listening. Don’t be tempted to second-guess what the other person means or will say next. Listen to their opinions, perspective and feelings.

Show Empathy

Try to see things from the other person’s point of view. Use listening, paraphrasing and questioning to understand their perspective and the reason behind why they might hold the opinions or feel the way they do.

Communicate in a non-confrontational way

Stay away from confrontational words, tone and body language such as folding your arms across your chest or raising your voice. Be really calm and clear in what you’re saying without coming across as bossy or preaching. If you’re being criticised, try to remain objective and don’t take offence.

Lead to a collaborative outcome

Once you feel everything has been said from both parties, check your understanding by summarising both positions. Ask permission to start working out a way forward together. Here you may want to aim for a Win Win outcome, although a compromise is often the best option available. Clarify any further actions required.

End on a positive

Always end difficult conversations by thanking the other party for their time and contribution. Return to the shared overall aim, maybe by way of the proposed solution and confirm that you feel confident in achieving that.

For example:

“Sven, I know that if you run your ideas past Sam first to help identify your Top 2 ideas for the month, you’ll find the team a lot more supportive in the meetings. ….I am so pleased that we’ve had this conversation as I think it has been really positive – I hope you do to. Thanks for your time Sven.” 

  1. Learn to turn difficult situations into a positive

In our jobs, whatever they may be, challenges will arise. Turn these challenges into opportunities to demonstrate leadership by having the “difficult conversations”.  Through observing your example, others will learn to apply the same techniques, workplace relationships will be more positive and productivity will improve.

To understand more about dealing with difficult situations at work and how to get better at navigating them, book a spot on our 2-day Difficult Situations at Work course.