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How NOT to have a difficult conversation

How NOT to have a difficult conversation

“Having the Difficult Conversations” is one of our core values, but, this is often easier said than done. That’s why we decided to take a look at the actions that make the difficult conversations even more difficult or cause us to avoid having them completely. 

First of all, what is a difficult conversation? Well, this can be a little subjective, something that your colleague considers complicated, might be easy for you, that said, society generally considers certain topics (like religion, politics, failure, etc), complicated and we usually avoid them as much as possible.

Hiding our emotions can create spaces of psychological danger and damage relationships both at home and work. Difficult conversations, although uncomfortable, can be game-changing.

Violent Communication

Violent communication is any communicative act that might cause the other person to step-back or shut down (even if it was unintentional). We are accustomed to communicating violently and often don’t even notice it. 

There are flaws and bad habits which present themselves in our everyday conversations, especially when trying to avoid or discredit difficult conversations. These communication processes create violent communication.

We think it’s good to start by analyzing our own communication, is it violent? By acknowledging and accepting the truth, we can make changes in order to avoid ongoing problems, unsolved conflicts and misunderstandings.

We recommend that you check out our Difficult Conversations report, where we explore the specific actions that we unconsciously make that are considered violent.

Nocive ways to communicate

Assertive communication is the ability to express both positive and negative ideas and feelings openly, it’s a great way to take responsibility for ourselves and to start those difficult kinds of conversations.

There are types of communication that make us less assertive, and represent ways of avoiding difficult conversations. Here are some of them:

  • Discordant communication: Is when your verbal and nonverbal communication are incoherent. For example: yelling “NO, I’M NOT ANGRY!”.
    This conflict is particularly difficult for the other person, because he/she will be confused due to the lack of clarity in the message. There should be coherence in what we’re saying, feeling and expressing.

  • Indirect communication: Asking without asking, this is when the message we’re trying to communicate is vague. For example: saying “the door is open…” when you’re expecting someone to close it.

    This conflict is especially annoying for the other party as it fails to provide clarity on responsibility or expectation. Communication should be as straightforward and clear as possible, making sure that we’re specific with the message.

  • Competitive communication: When one person is trying to prove that they are better and more relevant than the other. For example: “You think that’s a problem?! I haven’t told you my story…”


    This conflict creates a sense of underestimation of the other person, and can make them believe that their ideas are not important. This conflict is an example of lack of empathy. When someone tells you his/her problem or story they want to be heard not analyzed in terms of importance.

    Remember that
    you are not special, we are all. Let other people talk and share their experiences.
  • Sobering communication: A common conflict that happens when you try to solve the problem in question or give advice. This leaves the other person with unsettled feelings and can give the impression that you’re better at finding solutions.


    The not-so-secret ingredient for dealing with sobering communication is listening; most of the time, people just want to share what they are going through and are not expecting a solution or advice. The key is to wait until the other person asks, literally, for your advice eg: could you give me some advice about or could you help me find a solution to.
  • Judgmental communication. This is when you highlight negative aspects of the other person’s personality. For example: “you’re lazy, you’re always late, you’re irresponsible…”

    If you start a conversation in this way, the outcome isn’t going to be positive. Empathy needs to be present in difficult conversations. Communication that addresses other’s faults and mistakes, should be oriented towards improvement and progress rather than blaming and accusing. Take time to think, and decide what you want to say.

    This is especially important when giving feedback. A great way to shout someone down is by pointing out their mistakes. We need to be empathetic and address issues from a propositive point of view. When we point out the negative it can feel like it comes from a place of judgement, rather than from a desire to improve something. 


  • Manipulative communication. This happens when you try to gain something from the other person. For example: “You should do this because you are so good at it”. Sometimes, this manipulation is so subtle that it takes time to notice, but when it happens conflict will arise, especially when having delicate conversations about difficult decisions and tasks.

We believe that at some point we’ve all been manipulative and it’s often hard to identify. The need to be in control of everything and have everything your way is exhausting and can end friendships. Our advice is to be honest and keep it real.

Apart from these types of communication that affect our difficult conversations, there are plenty of other simple obstacles. You can read about them in a more detail here.

We’re always working to improve the way we communicate, we hope this helps you too. Sometimes it’s not the topic, but our attitude or the words we choose that make a conversation difficult.

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