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Communicating in Difficult Situations

Most people want to avoid conflict and potentially stressful situations – this is human nature.People often find it easier to avoid communicating something that they think is going to be controversial or bad, putting off the communication and letting the situation fester. 
A manager may hold off telling an employee that their standard of work is unsatisfactory.  A wife may put off explaining to her husband that she has scratched the car.  A child may put off telling their parents that they are struggling with classes at school. 
By following some simple guidelines and using some well-tuned communication skills communicating in difficult situations becomes easier.

There are two distinct types of difficult conversation, planned and unplanned:

Planned conversations situations are, by their nature, difficult they are controlled and as long as time has been taken to prepare and think properly about how others may react they can often end up being easier than imagined.

Unplanned difficult conversations take place on the spur of the moment; these are often fuelled by anger which can, in extreme cases, lead to aggression.

Often, after an unplanned difficult conversation we feel a surge of emotion – regret or shame if things didn't go too well or potentially a boost to self-esteem and confidence if they did.  After such encounters it is wise to reflect and learn from our experiences trying to find positives and ways of improving future unplanned difficult conversations.

Dealing with Difficult Conversation

There has to be a balance between communicating something difficult and being as sensitive as possible to those concerned.  The skill set required to do this may seem somewhat contradictory as you may need to be both firm and gentle in your approach. 
Recommended skills include:

Information Gathering

Make sure you have your facts straight before you begin, know what you are going to say and why you are going to say it.  Try to anticipate any questions or concerns others may have and think carefully about how you will answer questions

Being Assertive

Once you are sure that something needs to be communicated then do so in an assertive way. Do not find yourself backing down or changing your mind mid-conversation, unless of course there is very good reason to do so.

Being Empathic

Put yourself in the other person’s shoes and think about how they will feel about what you are telling them; how would you feel if the roles were reversed?  Give others time to ask questions and make comments. 

Being Prepared to Negotiate

Often a difficult situation requires a certain amount of negotiation, be prepared for this.  When negotiating, aim for a Win - Win outcome – that is, some way in which all parties can benefit.  

Using Appropriate Verbal and Non-Verbal Language

Speak clearly avoiding any jargon that other parties may not understand, give eye contact and try to sit or stand in a relaxed way.  Do not use confrontational language or body language.


When we are stressed we listen less well, try to relax and listen carefully to the views, opinions and feelings of the other person/people.  Use clarification and reflection techniques to offer feedback and demonstrate that you were listening.

Staying Calm and Focused

Communication becomes easier when we are calm, take some deep breaths and try to maintain an air of calmness, others are more likely to remain calm if you do.  Keep focused on what you want to say, don’t deviate or get distracted from the reason that you are communicating.

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