Working Together, Not Coming Apart

It’s not about who’s right but what’s important.

Most people dislike conflict. They don’t even want to talk about certain topics with certain people. They just want things to be nice and friendly all the time.

Well so do I. I would love it if everyone got along, if everyone was respectful and appropriate. But that’s never going to happen. So it makes a lot more sense to know how to conduct yourself when you’re having that “difficult conversation.”

By definition, a “difficult conversation” is one that makes you anxious. If you think about it, you may be dreading an upcoming conversation. It may be keeping you up at night. If so, you’ve got a “difficult conversation” on your hands.

To become better equipped to handle such conversations, you should attend my seminar on “Cooperation and Conflict: Working Together Instead of Coming Apart.” It’s an in-house program that I offer to dozens of organizations each year.

To get you started, however, here are a few “Do’s” and “Don’ts” for your upcoming “difficult conversations.”


It’s so easy to think you’re right. It’s easy to think your colleague’s comment was out of line at the staff meeting. It’s easy to think you deserved that raise, that the computer installation took too long, or that your partner was unfair. It’s easy to think you’re right.

If you automatically think you’re right, the conversation becomes one of trying to get the other person to admit he’s wrong. And that doesn’t work very well.

“Difficult conversations” are a lot more complicated than that. They’re not as simple as “who’s right” and “who’s wrong.” And they involve a great deal more than “the plain old facts.” They involve different perceptions, feelings, and values. So it’s not so much about “who’s right” as to “what’s important.”


People often assume that problems are solved by two totally rational people who stick to the facts. Somehow or other, they think good problem solvers suppress or avoid all that “emotional stuff.”

The truth is your feelings are always a part of the problem. They may even be the core of the problem. So they shouldn’t be ignored.

For example, you may have a lazy team member who is not pulling his weight. That’s a part of the problem. But you’re probably feeling resentful about it. That’s also a part of the problem.

So what should you “do” when you’re faced with a “difficult conversation?” I’m glad you asked. Pay attention to these “Do’s.”


NASA would never shoot off a rocket before they decided the purpose of their mission. And you should never enter a “difficult conversation” without first considering what you hope to accomplish.

If you think, “I just want to get something out in the open,” or if you think, “we just need to talk,” that’s not good enough. Your purpose is too vague, and your results will be disappointing.

Your purpose needs to be forward looking. Maybe you want the other person to clearly understand your position. Maybe you want the other person to apologize. Maybe you want to work out some kind of compromise on the problem facing the two if you. You’ve got to know the result you’re seeking before you open your mouth.


If you were to read the transcript of a “difficult conversation” that wasn’t going well, you’d notice one glaring imbalance. The two parties would be making lots of arguments, stating their points of view over and over again.

In fact, research indicates that would be a recipe for disaster. Ineffective conversations are 90% advocacy and 10% inquiry. In other words, the combatants talk too much and ask too little.

One of the first things you’ve got to do to get through a “difficult conversation” is to understand how the two of you see things differently. That requires lots of questions.


When you bring up “touchy” topics, the other person may react in ways that are quite uncomfortable for you. The other person may cry, get angry, or withdraw. The other person might turn the tables and accuse you of being unfair. He may even reject you.

You’ve got to know which reactions are the toughest for you to deal with. And then plan out — in advance — how you will respond to those reactions. Don’t “wing” it. You won’t be very effective if that’s your approach, especially in the midst of a difficult conversation.


Don’t expect to handle every difficult conversation with ease, poise, and eloquence. At the beginning of the conversation, you may be tongue-tied, scared, and inarticulate.

That’s okay. Your goal is not eloquence. It’s openness and honesty. And like any other skill, you will get better with practice.


You’ve always heard there are “two sides to every story.” That’s not true. Every story has three sides.

The third side is neither your story nor the other person’s story. Instead, it’s the story an impartial mediator would tell about what’s going on. It’s how he might describe the issues going on between the two of you.

Imagine that you and your coworker Joe are arguing over the handling of customer problems. You think Joe treats customers rather poorly. He is sometimes rude and impatient in his dealing with customers. And Joe thinks you let customers take advantage of you and the company. He thinks you’re a pushover.

If you begin the conversation from your side of the story, you might say, “Joe, we need to talk about the fact that you’re a jerk when it comes to customer service.” Joe is going to be defensive.

And if Joe starts by saying, “You’re a gullible fool, believing everything the customer tells you,” you’re going to be defensive. The two of you are stuck.

So how should you begin? Begin with the third side of the story. It might sound something like this, “It’s obvious we both care about our jobs. And we both want to do what we think is best. But you and I have different approaches to customer service. Let’s see if we can talk about that and agree on some guidelines we could both live with.”

No one will feel attacked. And you’ll be off to a better, smoother start.


In the midst of a difficult conversation, it’s easy for you and the other person to say things that could totally destroy any progress you’re making. So you’ve got to reframe or rephrase those comments in a more neutral or positive light.

If your kid, for example, calls you a “jerk,” you could reframe the comment. You could say, “It sounds like you’re upset about something I did.” Or if you’re a teenager, and your parents are labeling you as “irresponsible” for missing your curfew, you could rephrase their criticism by saying, “I appreciate the fact you care about my safety and whether or not my word means anything.”

Any comment, no matter how negative, can be reframed into something more constructive.


There are times you should simply walk away from a difficult conversation. You don’t have the time to confront your boss, coworker, or spouse every time they tick you off.

But if walking away is your response most of the time, you’re on the wrong track. Your feelings will fester. And in the long run, if you don’t raise important issues and have those “difficult conversations,” you will damage your relationship. Just make sure you do it correctly.

And if the feedback from my readers is any indication, I’ve received several hundred letters of appreciation as to how my book on Brave Questions has helped them have better conversations than ever before. People are even giving the book to their team members, friends, and family members so they can benefit. If you haven’t learned and used the “Brave Question” process yet, it’s time that you do.

Action:  Think of an upcoming difficult conversation you’re going to have. Determine the purpose you wish to achieve by having the conversation, and plan out how you’ll start the conversation. Work out the “third” side of the story, and start with that.