Difficult conversations – crucial conversations – important conversations – whatever you call them, most people struggle with having them. According to one report, managers cited having a difficult conversation as the biggest challenge they face in their roles. Add to that that nearly 69% of managers are uncomfortable communicating with employees and 37% said they were uncomfortable giving direct feedback, and we have an environment in the modern workplace where people struggle with providing clear and open feedback – which makes conversations, and particularly having a difficult conversation – difficult.

So how did it become this way?

Were you taught how to have a difficult conversation at school? At home? Neither was I. Like discussion on politics, religion and sex, how to have difficult conversations wasn’t discussed at the dinner table or in polite conversations. In fact, the focus on ‘polite conversations’ probably steered most of us away from getting comfortable with difficult conversations!

So why do most difficult conversations go bad?

In short, most difficult conversations go bad because they are led by emotions. Emotions are an important part of a difficult conversations, but when they are the lead and the focus of the conversation, they are almost always doomed to fail. Why? Because most people suck as responding to other peoples emotions.

Emotions! Emotions hit like a tidal wave, and they are so overwhelming that it is difficult to see the message / the meaning / the problem that is being defined underneath them. Leading with emotions shuts down most people’s ability to actually hear the message underneath.

Emotions are powerful – and because of this they are often used as a weapon, in the moment, to bludgeon the other person into submission.

Don’t get me wrong – emotions are incredibly important in difficult conversations – some would say the most important part – but if you lead with them you may as well kiss the rest of the conversation goodbye.

Because they are so powerful, and they can catch us by surprise – both for the person saying them and the person receiving them – that they are often met with fight – or an equal and opposite set of emotions.

Fight Or Flight

The standard responses to an ‘emotions first’ approach to difficult conversations are 1. Fight, 2. Or, and 3. Flight

  1. Fight– a person leads with emotions in a difficult conversation, and you response quickly and harshly with your own emotions. Two people on the attack, not only speaking their feelings but being right ‘in’ them at the same time (What does that mean? Talking about being angry when you are also really angry). Fight responses result in very short, explosive conversations that drive a relationship backwards rather than forwards.
  2. Flight – a person leads with emotions in a difficult conversation, and the other person is overwhelmed by what they hear, can’t deal with them and walks away. The originator doesn’t feel heard or validated, and the receiver feels ambushed and set upon. Safety is the first thought of the receiver, and they retreat and escape from having to deal with the emotions expressed. Again, not productive.
  3. Or – the third response – the stunned silence. A person leads a difficult conversation with emotions and the receiver stands mute in silence. Surprised by what they have heard, struggling with their own response and not sure whether to accept or respond, the receiver stands in mute silence. For the originator, it feels like the person has paid no attention, doesn’t care or hasn’t responded. For the receiver, they may have all of the fight / flight thoughts in their head, but don’t know which way to proceed – and do nothing.

If emotions shot conversations down – how do you express them?

In our Difficult Conversations and Emerging Leaders Programs, we strongly recommend people to break down the difficult conversation into component parts.

In addition, we suggest that people instigating a difficult conversation actually ‘inoculate’ the receiver for what is coming, so that they can reduce the fight or flight response.

What is an inoculation?

It is creating the start point for a future conversation, so that people are prepared for what may come. It includes a request for a conversation, an indication on what the topic is about and an indication whether it is going to be a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ conversation.

Ie. ‘James – can we have a discussion later this afternoon about the report you submitted yesterday. There are some things I wasn’t happy with that I would like to discuss with you’. In this simple example, James knows – in advance – that he is going (if he accepts to the time) too have a conversation about a report (specific detail) and how someone felt about it (not happy). James knows both the topic and the feeling going into the conversation in advance, and can prepare for it. He might have a response ready – and he is less likely to fight or flight respond. Note -that doesn’t mean that he won’t – it just means he is less likely to. Inoculating the respondent for a conversation is one of the easiest way to make a difficult conversation more palatable.

So what about emotions?

To give the emotions you feel about an issue their rightful place, we don’t discuss them at the start. We include them as part of a set of perspectives, details, opinions and requests that all form part of a difficult / crucial / important conversation.

The DRIFT Model – a Template for Leading a Difficult Conversation

This process follows our IDRIFT model, where IDRIFT stands for:

  • Inoculation – Prepare the person for the conversation
  • Define – Explain the issue with facts and data
  • Repercussions – What have been the repercussions (impacts) of the issue
  • Intention – Why are you having the conversation (information? Fix something?)
  • Feelings – How do you feel about the issue? (not how you feel about the other person)
  • Timelines – what would you like to happen and when?

Following an IDRIFT model for difficult conversations not only means the person is more likely to hear what you have to say, you are more likely to get what you want / need from the conversation. Emotions have an important place in the conversation, but they aren’t the start point, nor are they the driving force of the conversation. If you want to be more successful at having difficult conversations, you need to think beyond your emotions and look at the whole conversation.


Do you struggle with difficult conversations?

Developing Leaders includes difficult conversation training in the Emerging Leaders Program, Executive Leadership Program, Leadership Essentials Program and the Performance Management Essentials and Leading Difficult Conversations workshops. The latter includes not only training in the IDRIFT principles, but multiple opportunities to practise and refine your skills in having your won difficult conversations.


Michael Peiniger is the owner and lead facilitator at Developing Leaders, focussed on developing people to become the leaders that others choose to follow. A leadership and high-performance teams expert, Michael is a highly sought after speaker, trainer and executive leadership coach who is focussed on developing leadership skills and behaviours through a practical, results driven approach. Michael can be contacted for enquiries or bookings on +61409627270 or leader@developingleaders.com.au or via his website www.developingleaders.com.au