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Home » Communication, Leadership

Difficult Conversations

Submitted by on Thursday, 22 April 20103 Comments

Given the stresses of the recent situation in Thailand, one tool professionals may find useful as a soft skill is that of being able to manage conflict. Specifically, being able to address an issue through holding a ‘difficult conversation’.

Over the last week, we have had clients in two situations, each of which is causing them serious stress:

  1. One manager’s direct reports have fallen out due to politics. Specifically, one employee supports one ‘shirt colour’, while the other does not.
  2. Another manager’s team is still in ‘Songkran mode’, and also distracted by external events, instead of focusing on their work.

The natural inclination among Thais (linked to the cultural trait of ‘risk aversion) is to avoid confrontation.

However, avoiding confrontation does not mean the conflict has been avoided, or that the problem impacting morale, performance or productivity, has been solved.

While it may be instinctive to hope that the problem ‘goes away’ or ‘sorts itself out by itself’, many of us in management are aware that very few problems do so, which is why it helps to use the skill of holding a difficult conversation.

What is a difficult conversation, and how can we handle it?

A difficult conversation is one where stakes are high (or are perceived to be so), opinions are firmly held, or emotions run strongly.

We can handle these conversation in the following ways:

  • Not at all (i.e. avoiding it)
  • Face the conversation but handle it poorly
  • Face the conversation and handle it effectively

Dialogue, not debate, is the key

The #1 mistake most managers make in handling the situations above, is that they approach them from a point of view of authority, where the best the employee can hope for is to have a debate – and lose it. Unfortunately, this usually makes the conflict worse.

Instead, in any difficult conversation the key is to move to a dialogue, where your first objective is to create ‘a pool of shared meaning’.

A difficult conversation is not a negotiation as such, where the objective is to try to get the best deal for yourself. Instead, in a dialogue (as if you are having a conversation with a friend) you try to achieve a positive, lasting relationship.

The difference is subtle, but important.

Dialogue... or debate?

In a difficult conversation, the questions we need to ask are as follows:

  • What do I want for myself in this?
  • What do I want for others?
  • What do I want for the relationship?
  • How would I really behave if I wanted those things?

Emotional Objectives

Our first objectives are almost always emotional. In a difficult conversation, we need first to create a safe ‘space’ where both sides can contribute their views and thoughts. In other words, we need to create a feeling of mutual respect and trust. Trust is usually promoted through the peer (in the cases above the manager) showing vulnerability.

We then need to create a feedback loop, leading to agreed action.

STATE your path

To do so, in Conflict Management we use a simple and effective acronym called STATE your path:

Share you facts first – in a non-controversial, objective way

Tell your story. ‘Based on the facts I see…’

Ask for others paths. What are their facts? What is their story?

Talk tentatively

Encourage testing. ‘Can you tell me what I’m missing here?’

When you have completed this process, you should have a ‘pool of meaning’ that you both have achieved together. In many cases, the person you are having a dialogue with will immediately contribute his or her ideas for action – which means you have made progress in your difficult conversation.

Situation #1 redux

In situation #1 given above, the manager needs to resist the temptation of ‘disciplining’ or ‘scolding’ his reports.

Communication Skills Thailand

It is important to discover their story (Ask their Paths).

The presumed manager’s objective is to increase his reports’ awareness that, as manager of the team, his objective is to ensure that the team performs greater than a collection of mere individuals. His presumed objective would be to elicit (find out) whether each individual felt that raising politics at work could contribute to that success, and in which way? (Listening openly as his reports do so). Usually, most employees would conclude it does not. From here, the manager could explore the triggers creating the urge to raise politics, and seek to elicit the new behaviours that avoid those triggers being pulled (Action).


As managers, it feels we are expected to know the numerous ‘soft skills’ expected of us in the work place as part of our ‘life education’ or growing up. As a result, training soft skills is often underrated, and few managers have the opportunity to see this as a key managerial discipline.

Studies show that ‘managing the intangibles’ is what sets effective managers apart from ineffective ones – and that the difference has little or nothing to do with technical knowledge or skills.

Managers able to negotiate conflict through dialogue  will be well-placed to thrive in ‘risk averse’ cultures where avoiding conflict is the norm.

Talent Technologies offers management training programmes in Thailand and South-East Asia which includes Conflict Management and our soon-to-be-released Personal Change Programme.

For more details, please feel free to contact us here.


Talent Technologies :: Management Training Programmes in Thailand and South-East Asia


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