Transforming Tension: 4 Ways to Navigate Difficult Conversations

StrategyDriven Practices for Professionals Article | Transforming Tension: 4 Ways to Navigate Difficult Conversations

Difficult conversations aren’t the same for all people. They affect us differently because they trigger stories we carry about who we are, what’s right and wrong, and what’s good and bad. Some of these stories are dominant, and we’re aware of them. Yet other stories are hidden and may surface unexpectedly in the course of a conversation.

A challenging conversation might involve giving a poor performance review, speaking with someone who has strong ideologies different from our own, or discussing current events or politics. Depending on what stories these conversations trigger, we might cringe, confront the conversations head-on to end them quickly, or avoid having them altogether.

Is there anything we can do to make these conversations better?

Foster Psychological Safety

Psychological safety allows us to feel safe to speak up about ideas, concerns, or mistakes because we don’t fear punishment or retribution. When we have psychological safety, we’re more willing to engage in difficult conversations because we’re assured we won’t be personally criticized or retaliated against.

In the workplace, leaders play a pivotal role in establishing a culture that’s safe, respectful, transparent, and inclusive—and communicating that violations of these principles won’t be tolerated. Clearly explain these expectations and how they’ll be supported. When things go wrong, set up a joint exploration to assess what happened and use it as a learning opportunity.

Practice Managing Your Emotions

During difficult conversations, we can gauge and control our own emotions, but we can also manage our reactions to other people’s emotions.

 Our minds and bodies are connected, and one function our brains have is to manage how much energy is budgeted toward emotional expression. If we anticipate a difficult conversation, our brains get ready to expend more energy than we’d need for a casual, enjoyable one. Just think about how exhausted you feel after a challenging encounter. 

When these types of conversations repeat or sustain over time, we can end up exhausted, which may manifest in irritability or illness. To avoid this, practice anticipating difficult conversations and how you can manage your emotional response to them.

Level Up Your Communication Skills

Being an effective communicator improves any conversation. This includes active listening, asking good questions, and being able to express what you need from the other person.

During difficult conversations, we need to hear what the other person is saying and, in some cases, what they’re not overtly stating. Repeat and reflect back what you’ve heard; this lets the person know you’re present and listening. Ask open-ended questions that call for further exploration or probing questions that prompt a deeper level of explanation. 

It’s equally important to state what you need and want from the conversation. Defer to the other person first to hear what he or she has to say; this will create a space for the other person to be more open to your needs. This way, both parties are being as transparent as possible and informing each other, which dispels assumptions.

Have an Exit Strategy

If a conversation gets too heated or beyond the point of feeling psychologically, emotionally, or physically safe, then it’s time to stop. You can simply say, “I think it’s a good idea for us to take a break and regroup at a later date.”

When you reengage, revisit the conversation’s conditions or have someone present as a mediator or facilitator to act as a safeguard.

If conditions weren’t (or can’t be) set or you aren’t feeling safe enough to engage, then you need to be able to express that you won’t participate. Too often, we’re caught off guard or feel awkward and uncomfortable about not following through. However, if the conversation’s conditions aren’t right for you, you’re feeling unprepared, or the other party is too emotional, don’t move forward. You can say, “I’m sorry, but I’m not prepared to participate in this conversation at this time.”

From Challenging to Rewarding Conversations

 We live in a complex world, and we each have stories we carry that come from our lifetime experiences. It takes a certain kind of open and welcoming mindset to be willing to learn more about others—and to go through potentially uncomfortable conversations to get there. It can be very rewarding to push past barriers that prevent us from learning more about one another and our encounters. However, it’s important to prepare well, and that includes setting up the conditions that allow for fruitful conversations.

About the Author

Beth Fisher-Yoshida, Ph.D., CCS, is a global expert and educator in negotiation and communication. She’s the program director of Columbia University’s Master of Science in Negotiation and Conflict Resolution, a negotiation consultant for the United Nations, and the CEO of the consulting agency Fisher Yoshida International. Her new book, New Story, New Power: A Woman’s Guide to Negotiation, helps women of all ages make successful negotiations a reality. Learn more at