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Effective Conversations About Difficult Issues


When emotions are high and there are different viewpoints among participants, having an effective conversation can be challenging. In addition, emotions usually run highest when the outcome of the conversation means the most. People get tense and hyper-alert, bracing themselves for the worst. For example, consider your reaction when someone says “We need to talk. ”  Most people prepare for a difficult interaction by putting up barriers to defend themselves, not by relaxing and focusing on being more open with information. They’re on guard before the deep conversation even starts. Their posture makes it difficult to freely share ideas.

Many emotionally sensitive people avoid conversations that are likely to result in conflict. They fire people, break up with girlfriends, and cancel plans with friends by texting, sending emails, or leaving voice mails. Sometimes decisions are unilaterally made on incomplete information because difficult conversations were avoided.

For the emotionally sensitive, tense conversations can be so painful that they avoid any deep conversations and avoid expressing their own opinions.

In Critical Conversation Skills,  the authors give guidelines for having difficult conversations in an effective way.

Avoid the Fool’s Choice

The Fool’s Choice is believing that you have to choose between telling the truth and keeping a friend or colleague. It’s being trapped in an either/or box. When we feel threatened our brains go into survival mode and our ability to think of options and alternatives decreases.

In effective conversation, you don’t let yourself get boxed in with two choices. So the questions becomes “How do you tell the truth and keep your friend?”


Getting all the relevant information on the table is one key to having an effective conversation and finding effective solutions. When people openly and honestly share their views, they get closer to having the whole picture of the situation. When each person voices his or her views and  a shared meaning is reached, any decision made will be a better one. In addition, everyone involved will be more invested in the decision.

Dialogue skills can be learned.

1.  Start with Heart. The first step is to change your view that the problem is other people, that those losers are getting in the way of an excellent solution. Even if that were true, the only person you can really change is yourself.  Starting with heart means to begin discussions with the right motives and stay focused on the right motives no matter what. You respect the other people involved and want to understand their point of view. You accept that there is truth in their views.

This means not getting sidetracked by a wish to “win.”  You may  start out with the goal of resolving a problem but soon start correcting facts, quibbling over details, and pointing out flaws in the other person’s argument.  They will of course push back. Then you are likely to become committed to winning. When you’re committed to winning you aren’t looking for a solution that works for everyone, you’re pushing for your own position and to prove you are right.

As the discussion gets more heated you may move past wanting to win to wanting to punish. “He’ll be sorry,” and “She won’t get away with this,” reflects your wishes to make the other person suffer. Humiliation is often a tool of punishment and it shuts down dialogue. At that point you are far from the original goal of having an effective conversation.

2.  Learn to Look.  Recognizing the danger signs that you are destroying an effective conversation is difficult when you are in the middle of the interaction. Some people notice their physical responses first, such as flushing, feeling hot, tight stomach, or closing throat. Others notice their emotions. They may become scared or angry. Some notice behavioral signs such as raising their voice, pointing their finger, or becoming quiet.

When you notice these signals, focus on creating safety.  When people feel safe they communicate more freely. The problem most often is not what you are talking about but the condition of the conversation. People become defensive when they are afraid and begin to behave in annoying ways such as making fun of you, becoming aggressive in their arguments, being silent, or insulting you.  Don’t respond to those behaviors, instead focus on helping the others feel safe again.

3.  Make It Safe.  Feeling safe is usually related to two conditions.  One is having a mutual purpose. People can listen to difficult content if they believe you share a mutual purpose, such as saving the relationship or improving working conditions.  Another safety condition is mutual respect. If others perceive that you don’t respect them, the conversation immediately becomes unsafe and the dialogue stops. When safety has been jeopardized, restore it. Explain what you didn’t and did intend, show respect and find a mutual purpose.

4.  Master My Stories:  Accept that you are the one responsible for your emotions, no one else. Be aware of what stories you tell yourself that are based on assumptions and lead to emotions and actions that aren’t helpful. Stick to the facts.  Watch out particularly for helpless stories (“There’s Nothing Else I Can Do”), victim stories (“It’s Not My Fault”), and villain stories (“It’s All Your Fault.”).

5.  State My Path:  Share your facts in an honest, direct way without apologizing or sugarcoating the information. Communicate your purpose in having the conversation, share your views and ask for the views of others. Express yourself in ways that show you know you probably don’t have all the information and that other explanations may exist. Show openness to input. Stating your path is done in a direct, clear, honest, and respectful way.

6.  Explore Others’ Paths:  Sincerely listen to and understand the views of others. Explore how they reached the conclusions that they have.  Ask questions to help understand their view as completely as you can. Compare their views with yours, agree where you can and build together to get a complete picture. Even if you can’t see how their views would add to your understanding, pay attention and be sure you understand. You may be surprised by what you learn.

7.  Move to Action:  Determine what action will be taken even it is to find additional information. Set times to to follow up.


Patterson, K.; Grenny, J.; McMillan, R.; and Switzler, A.  Crucial Conversations:  Tools for Talking When Stakes Are High.  New York: McGraw-Hill, 2002.



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Effective Conversations About Difficult Issues

Karyn Hall, PhD

Karyn Hall, Ph.D. is the owner/director of the Dialectical Behavior Therapy Center in Houston, a DBT-Linehan Board of Certification, Certified Clinician, a RO DBT Approved Supervisor and Trainer and owner of, an online educational program. She is a trainer/consultant as well as a therapist and certified coach, author of The Emotionally Sensitive Person, SAVVY, Mindfulness Exercises for DBT Therapists, and co-author of The Power of Validation. Her podcast, The Emotionally Sensitive Person, is available on iTunes.

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APA Reference
Hall, K. (2012). Effective Conversations About Difficult Issues. Psych Central. Retrieved on November 28, 2020, from


Last updated: 9 Sep 2012
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