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ATD Blog

The Trouble With Difficult Conversations Is the First Word

Thursday, August 26, 2021

I met V, the chief operating officer of a midsize law firm, for coffee. They sat with a large cup of coffee tightly grasped in their hands while staring into the dark abyss. Every few seconds they sighed as they exhaled, and their body language screamed of exhaustion and tension. “I'm not looking forward to today. I have to have a difficult conversation with Sam.”

We all have had to deal with a “Sam.” If you haven’t experienced this phenomenon, don’t worry—one day, you will. “Sam” is V’s difficult employee. Most conversations about “Sam” started with “Don't get me wrong; I like Sam, but …” followed by an extensive list of problems.

Similar to V, when we think about a difficult person, thoughts of hardship, pain, frustration, annoyance, and even fear surface. We start to psych ourselves up for a battle. And in the difficult battle, no one wins because everything that leads up to the discussion creates a judgmental or defensive mindset. The battle is fixed to fail.

The Challenge

Before any difficult conversation, we have eaten a steady diet of complaints and stories about the difficult person. We fixate on the information, and our subconscious mind strengthens the negative thoughts against the person. None of us intentionally mean to do this; it is a side effect of the word difficult. The definition of the word itself feeds the problem. The more we fixate, the more we dread the conversation, which leads to sleeplessness and anxiety. By the time we head into a conversation, our thoughts are so prejudiced it is almost impossible for open, impartial dialogue to happen.


The Difference a Word Makes

Words have influence, power, and energy, and the right word makes all the difference. Courage, courageous, and courageousness elicit different responses in our conscious and unconscious minds. A C.O.U.R.A.G.E-OUS conversation doesn’t ignore the complexities or hardship, but it does provide an empowering and liberating approach.


Imagine having the courage to have a conversation with a person facing a difficult situation. Both of you seek to understand the circumstances surrounding the problem. Both of you have underlying feelings of dread because of the difficulty of the situation. And you both wish to reach the desired future that restores a sense of partnership and fulfillment. Can you see how the conversation can produce a different result?

The most challenging thing about this approach is shifting your internal dialogue from having a conversation with a difficult person to having a C.O.U.R.A.G.E-OUS conversation with a person facing a difficult situation. It requires dismantling thinking systems to necessitate change. V worked to make the mental shift when approaching conversations with Sam. Now, instead of feeling dread and trepidation, V looks forward to finding practical solutions through C.O.U.R.A.G.E-OUS conversations with Sam.

About the Author

Claudette Hutchinson, CPTD, is chief learning officer for Andreaus Consulting. As a result of thousands of conversations, Andreaus Consulting has identified a model that unmasks the obstacles hindering learners from reaching their maximum output.

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