Forward thinking: Having difficult conversations

Loren Simmonds

Difficult conversations are never enjoyable. . .

I know of which I speak. I have had my share both in my personal and professional life. If you have ever had to fire someone, reject a request for a pay raise, or give a negative performance review. . . then you know first-hand about the stresses surrounding difficult conversations.

These conversations are filled with tension, tend to be emotional, and threaten to blow up if the wrong words are chosen. Anticipating the unpleasantness of the situation, most of us are tempted to handle them indirectly or avoid them all together, if we possibly can.

However, over the years, my life experience has been that when I or others attempt to “dodge issues,” “appease difficult people,” and “ignore antagonisms,” it has of way of being costly and often backfires. That being said, I would offer up some “common sense” instructions on navigating difficult conversations.

The keys to navigating tough talks are relatively few in number – three to be exact. They are as follows:


In an effort to soften the blow, some people mislead difficult conversations and unintentionally create confusion. For example, to avoid being overly stern, they may adopt a friendly, non-confrontational tone while attempting to deliver a sharp and serious message. This mismatch between the speaker’s posture and his talking points leaves the listener feeling frustrated.

At other times, speakers simply talk around problems or euphemize to the extent that their core message loses its meaning. When initiating difficult conversations, the speaker should use honest and direct language. Although it may not seem easy, clarity will help facilitate resolution of the problematic conversation.

Preparation Tip: Before the conversation, write down the brief content of your message and devise a strategy for delivering it.


Difficult conversations serve as emotional pressure cookers. When personal grudges and past injuries exist, talking tough may unleash a torrent of anger and hurt. The speaker must strive to stay neutral and refuse to allow negative emotions to derail a difficult conversation.

While the speaker cannot control the emotions of the person to whom he is speaking, he can make a effort to defuse them. This can be done by monitoring the non-verbal messaging. For example, adopt calm facial expressions, body language, and voice intonation. A poised demeanor goes a long ways in draining the negative emotion out of a challenging conversation.

Preparation Tip: Before the conversation, take mental inventory of the mannerism you adopt when angered. Awareness before hand will help you to avoid provoking your listener with negative, non-verbal signs in the heat of the moment.


Avoid escalating a difficult conversation by moderating the use of extreme language — especially profanity. When speaking, phrase your ideas with words that convey your intent with respect. In the words of Wendell Johnson: “Always and never are two words you should always remember not to use.”

Preparation Tip: Role-play a difficult conversation with a friend to rehearse your lines. Although it may seem awkward, it’s the best preparation for a tough talk.

And there you have it.  Three little words — Clarity, Neutrality and Temperance. When used as outlined in a difficult conversation, they can turn a negative into a win-win situation.

Until next time. . .

— By Loren Simmonds

Loren Simmonds has been a resident of Lynnwood for 37 years. He served on the Lynnwood City Council for 16 years, including eight as Council President. He remains active in the community by serving on the Parks and Recreation Foundation Board, Civil Service Commission and the Snohomish County Planning Commission. He believes that volunteerism sows the seeds of community. Loren is semi-retired and works as a writer, speaker and leadership coach.






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