Are you listening to me?

At that moment, I hadn’t realized I wasn’t listening.

A group of us stood on set in a broadcasting studio about fifty feet from the live show where one of our hosts was selling a product to over sixty million people. We were discussing upcoming changes to the studio.

As in any group, there were many points of view, but the main discussion was between Jules and me. Our viewpoints differed on how best to accomplish the studio changes. As we talked, the tone of our voices changed until we were yelling at each other. Finally, one of the live show producers told us to shut up and get out of the studio.

Jules fled the studio and went back to her desk.

I stood there seething.

A few minutes later, my boss caught up to me and whispered, “Fix it.”

I opened my mouth to say something. And he looked at me, daring me to say something.

I knew I had to have a conversation with Jules.

Having difficult conversations at work is hard. In my workshop, Difficult Conversations, I ask the participants what conversations are difficult for them in the workplace. I get a variety of answers, from owning up to our own mistakes, mediating disputes between colleagues, asking for something, handling personal issues, and dealing with poor performance.

Someone once told me, “Conversations are steps to greater understanding.” They can help us share knowledge, express emotions, build relationships, and resolve conflict. And even though we are taught from a young age how to talk, we aren’t often told how to converse.

When we don’t have difficult conversations, issues remain unsolved, errors continue to happen, relationships deteriorate, stress increases, teamwork falters, and productivity goes down. When we have difficult conversations, most of us walk away feeling lost, as if we didn’t get what we needed from the conversation.

I knew the conversation I was going to have with Jules was going to be difficult. As I walked to her office, I realized that I was so focused on being heard that I hadn’t listened to what she was saying.

At the heart of strong relationships is trust. It is hard to have a conversation if there is no trust between you. This doesn’t mean that you need to like the other person. It means that you know what to expect from them.

I trusted and liked Jules. Over the years, we have had many conversations, and although we didn’t always agree, we have found ways to work together. I was hoping that this would be the case as well.

When discussing difficult conversations, we talk about difficult people. They are stubborn. They don’t listen. They are idiots. They are in it for themselves. When instead, we should be focused on either their behavior, pattern behaviors or deterioration of the relationship. The question is, “What outcome do we want from the conversation?”

I thought about this as I walked over to Jules’s office. At the moment when we were yelling at each other, I wanted to be respected for my point of view, and if I needed to be loud to be heard, so be it. Now, what I realized was most important is my relationship with Jules. Because of our positions, we would be working together, and if we didn’t have a strong relationship, everything would be harder to do.

A lot of the time, difficult conversations are hard because we are trying to be right instead of focusing on the best outcomes for everyone. We paint a picture of what we believe happened, which is so different from the one the other person has painted for themselves. We must step back and ask, “Why would a reasonable, rational, and decent person react the way they did?”

With this question, we are trying to be empathetic to the other’s point of view. When I talked to Jules, it was about me and the others not respecting her. She felt that we had dismissed her ideas and pushed our own agenda. My intention wasn’t to disrespect her; it was to be heard myself, and to do that, I had belittled her.

People ask me if there is a singular formula for having a difficult conversation. Unfortunately, there isn’t because each situation is different, but we do know there are some good conversational patterns that help us move forward.

  1. Define the missed expectation.
  2. Anticipate their point of view.
  3. Build Safety for you and them.
  4. Share your story.
  5. Discuss the impact on you, the team, and the organization.
  6. Ask a question.
  7. Listen. Be curious.
  8. Explore the Issue.
  9. Solve it together.
  10. Gain Commitment.

When we have more confidence in dealing with difficult conversations, they are more likely to go well and help us move beyond them, building stronger relationships, increasing productivity, decreasing stress, and finding common ground.

I stood in front of Jules’s workstation and took a deep breath. It was time for me to have a difficult conversation.

If you want to learn more about having Difficult Conversations, please attend the upcoming workshop on March 27th, 2024, at 11:30 am CT. Click here to register. Or if you are interested in having this workshop delivered at your workplace, please email me at

John Thalheimer – CEO and Leadership Coach at HR Stories

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