As the Covid-19 pandemic forced us to log in behind our screens, it also made it all the more convenient to avoid difficult conversations. You know the ones where the emotions can be intense and the sensitivities deep.

Too clumsy. Too risky. Too difficult.

Unfortunately, the most important conversations are often the least comfortable. Easier to just politely smile and put it off until we’re all back in the office. Whenever it is.

Yet our conversations form the blood of our relationships, forming the currency of influence in any team or organization. Engaging in conversations about sensitive issues requires self-awareness, emotional intelligence, and a solid dose of courage. Gathering this courage requires understanding the price we pay when we don’t. About our stress levels, our relationships, our influence, and our ability to achieve what we want and change what we don’t.

If you are in a leadership role, this is further magnified. After all, “the people are the project. If you don’t deal with people issues, you are doomed to fail in all other outcomes.

In short, sticking to only “safe conversations” can result in a hefty hidden tax on individual well-being, team productivity, and bottom line. VitalSmarts research found a strong correlation between the length of time it took for a problem to be identified and it was raised with the performance of the team. Before Covid-19, it lasted on average two weeks. Right now it’s probably much longer.

So if there is a conversation that you pushed back, here are some ideas to help you resolve any issue that concerns you (and probably others too!).

-1- Clarify your highest intention

It’s easy to communicate from a reactive, defensive, frustrated, or fearful place. Many do. It gives a temporary feeling of gratification. Bam, I have them! But this rarely gives a positive result.

So, before entering into a potentially sensitive conversation, be clear about your positive intention. What positive intention are you trying to serve? For you, for them, for your relationship? So be honest about where your ego might take you to prove you’re right or wrong and connect from the highest part of you, not the lowest.

-2- Check your story

You don’t see the problems as they are, but as you are … filtered through your lens, your fears and your experiences, past and present. Often the story we create about a problem (or “problem person”) is the root of the problem, hampering our ability to solve it and chart a better course forward. So think about where you picked someone as the villain, yourself as the victim, or applied labels (it’s useless, it’s a lost cause, I’m desperate to … ) that limit new possibilities.

-3- Listen beyond oral concerns

Even when we can see someone on the other side of the screen, technology has a way to disconnect us from the human element in our interactions. Connecting with the humanity of the person behind the image on your screen will lead to a much better outcome than just going through your checklist.

Before you unload what you have in mind, put yourself in their shoes and really try to see what they see and feel what they feel. What are the deeper and more unspoken concerns that might be at play here? The very act of genuinely seeking to understand makes a huge deposit in the relational “trust account.”

So ask them how they see and feel about the problem. Then…


In doing so, resist the temptation to fill in awkward silences. It is in the pauses between thoughts that real problems often surface. Listening is the most powerful and underutilized singular communication skill.

-4- Keep it real

If you feel uncomfortable about a conversation, just say it. You are human. It is a vulnerable territory. Own that. If that’s the reason you pushed back on this conversation, please share it as well. This pandemic has been difficult for most of us. Be humble and take full responsibility for your role in this issue, including not raising the issue sooner. Then explain why you think it is important to do it now (see point 1).

-5- Be honest, but in a way that uplifts, not denigrates

Behavior scientist Dr William Schutz once said that “if business people told the truth, 80 to 90% of their problems would go away.” People can intuitively tell when you are being sincere. They can also tell when you’re not.

Be careful to distinguish the problem (behavior or problem) from the person himself. Just because someone has done something stupid doesn’t mean he’s stupid. Give them space to be otherwise.

Invite their feedback on how to deal with the problem and use language that expresses your belief in their ability to respond well. Talking to people will never raise them higher, but will reinforce the very beliefs that motivate the behavior.

The above said, do not water down the truth with fallacious flattery. It doesn’t create trust, it undermines it. People often react defensively to implicit criticism.

-6- Take time and place into account

If you work in multiple global time zones, make sure you have the call at a time of the day that is caring for the other person. Don’t leave a difficult conversation on Friday at 5 p.m., and make sure you leave enough time for a meaningful conversation. Likewise, if you tend to talk too much or emphasize points, write down your key points ahead of time.

As for the location, well … you might not have much choice but to log in from your home workspace right now. However, if you can get out and walk around, changing your physical space can be a powerful way to shift the emotional space of a conversation. Consider that the two of you are going for a walk and talk … even in different places. Just make sure you can stay focused on it.

-7- Define and keep the right emotional tone

Emotions are contagious. The more sensitive a subject, the more quickly emotions can degenerate and deflect rational dialogue. Rehearse the conversation ahead of time, thinking about how you want to react if they have an emotional diversion. If they get angry, be curious and avoid getting caught up in a downward spiral of stone throwing. If things are overheating, call time out.

-8- Separate fact from opinion

Before jumping into your opinion on a situation, be sure to state the facts clearly as you see them. You may have incomplete information. So use language that leaves open the possibility of another interpretation of the situation. For example I understand that I might be missing something, but it looks like …

Who knows, maybe they have some important information that you don’t know that will make all the difference. The facts first. When you present your opinion as if it were the truth, you are sure to put people off the side.

-9- Make clear requests and commitments

A client recently told me how frustrated she was with a colleague. I asked her if she had been specific about what she wanted this person to do. “No, they should just know,” she replied. And this is where the problem lies. They weren’t aware of it! So never assume that people just know what you want and don’t want. Make clear requests, with specific, unambiguous and measurable expectations – for them and for yourself. Only then can you effectively manage any liability.

-10- Focus forward with a soft forehead, strong back

It’s easy to fall into pettiness and stone throwing about what i would-could-should pass. To what end? This does not negate the need to responsibility management. Instead, stay focused on what needs to change and don’t lose sight of the end of the game. Above all, never let someone else’s bad behavior be an excuse for yours.

The quality of your relationships is determined by the quality of the conversations you have there …

Don’t let the inability to meet in person keep you from having important conversations. And don’t let the screens between you be an excuse not to talk to that person the way you would if they were right in front of you.

Above all, don’t let your fear of what could go wrong keep you from speaking up to make things right.

If there’s something you really want to say, chances are someone really needs to hear it. Adopt it Buddhist principle of “soft forehead, strong back” and stand firmly in your truth … with courage, candor and benevolence.

Go courageously.

Margie Warrell is a courageous leadership speaker and creator of the Courageous Conversations Masterclass.

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