5 keys to unlock difficult conversations

Rating :  [Mouse-over to Rate]
In collaboration with: Lyle Cameron
Text Size Print
Think about all those conversations you'd rather avoid than have. Now think about how much better your relationships would be if you just had them. Let this leadership expert show you how.

"Sometimes, we just don't want to be the bearer of bad news and therefore avoid having some conversations," says Lyle Cameron, leadership effectiveness expert and president of Quotient Factor Inc. "It may embarrass us to tell a co-worker they have bad breath or body odour. Or we want to address an issue around being respected but do not want to make the situation worse. And some of us may be fearful of criticising someone's performance because we want to be liked."

Difficult conversations, however, are important to have because they can improve your chances of getting a deserved raise or promotion at work, get you closer with your partner or spouse, and even improve your self-confidence.

In some cases, though, even starting them is hard to do. That's where Lyle's 5 keys to having difficult conversations come in. Try following these steps and start to have those tough talks you've been putting off.

Key #1: Prepare ahead of time

Take the time to analyze the problem at hand, try to see it from both sides and have a clear idea of the outcome you want. To help you do that, he recommends completing this Preparation Chart:

What do you really want?    
What emotions could get in the way (such as anger, fear of rejection etc.)?    
What obstacles could get in the way (for example, not willing to take it seriously, resorting to sarcasm, changing the subject or making a joke out of it?    
How can you overcome these obstacles?    

Key #2: Understand "mental maps" and emotions

"We all have mental maps, or pictures of how we see the world based on our beliefs, values, religion and culture, and they can create boundaries that may affect how we see others and how they see us," says Lyle. These boundaries include:

  • Time — in some cultures, being late means you're being disrespectful.
  • Personal space — "your" chair in a meeting room may be seen as a communal chair to others.
  • Noise — loud noise and the volume of your voice may be intimidating to some people.

Be aware that crossing a boundary may cause an emotional reaction and that can lead to further conflict. If this is the case, you want to "hit the pause button" and reassure the person that you want to work with them to fix the problem rather than make it worse.

Key #3: Express yourself

"To have a well-rounded conversation, you need to know how to express yourself in a way that encourages cooperation and equal participation," says Lyle. Use his SHARE formula to do this:

  • S = Start with the facts — "You came in late three times this week."
  • H = Hypothesize or build a common objective (if you are unsure as to why it's happening) — "Is it because you're losing interest in your job?" or "We both want a good working relationship and make sure you are happy in your job. Is there a way we can make being on time easier for you?"
  • A = Ask for feedback — "What's your take on the situation? Is there something that I'm missing or don't know about?"
  • R = Remember to listen — Keep mental maps in mind, control your emotions and hit the pause button if things start going off topic.
  • E = Encourage a plan — "How are we going to solve this?"

Key #4: Build a bridge

Rather than tell the other party the solution, it's better to agree on one instead. That way, you won't end up alienating the other person and you both have a vested interest in making it happen. Consider Lyle's BUILD technique:

  • B = Brainstorm for ideas — "How can we do this?"
  • U = Undo barriers to execution — "Are there any barriers, like a lack of resources or a lack of time, and how can we overcome these barriers?"
  • I = Identify, together, the best solution — "Which solution works best for our situation?"
  • L = Lead to an agreement — While you need to show leadership, you still want to present a win-win situation; something that will make you both happy.
  • D = Define guidelines and motivation — "How are we going to monitor, review and update this agreement going forward so that we have long-term success?"

Key #5: Analyze results

"After the conversation, you want to identify what went well and what went poorly," advises Lyle. "Look at it from both sides and learn for the future."


  • Lyle Cameron, president, Quotient Factor Inc. website

Want to get the latest tips and tools? Sign up for our e-newsletter!

Morethanmedication.ca is updating its content twice per week. Subscribe to the e-newsletter to stay informed on the new information published on the website. Every 2 weeks, you'll receive an electronic newsletter with highlights from the 4 recently published articles from the past 2 weeks.

morethanmedication.ca will not share or use your e-mail address for any purpose except to send you the e-newsletter.