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How to have hard conversations without emotions taking over

No one enjoys having hard conversations with team members, but LaRae Quy offers four strategies to make them easier.

8 min read


hard conversations

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For almost twenty-five years, I studied the habits and mindsets of foreign spies assigned to the US to steal American classified and proprietary information. I needed to find ways to get these people to talk to me. It was important that I understood how they thought about themselves, their careers and their government. 

LaRae Quy

These discussions usually turn into hard conversations because a good spy does not want to be cornered by an FBI counterintelligence agent. If the spy’s boss found out the FBI was targeting them, the spy would most likely be sent back to the mother country.

A colleague of mine worked as an FBI hostage negotiator. While the targets of our investigations were different, we both learned the importance of effective communication and negotiation skills to do our job.

We all need to learn how to listen to and read people. For example:

  • Healthcare providers who experience moral injury when colleagues or patients compromise their values.
  • Entrepreneurs who depend on their ability to persuade investors and clients as they break into a new market.
  • Leaders who understand that communication and negotiation skills are essential for success.

Avoid emotional responses

It’s easy to get emotional when we’re engaged in tense, complicated conversations. A disagreement can feel like a threat. We may have to give up something, even if it’s only our point of view.

Our body and our mind ramp up for a fight by triggering the sympathetic nervous system. Our heart rate can spike, and our breathing can become shallow. Our emotional brain, the limbic system, goes into “fight or flight” mode because it can’t distinguish between a threat presented because we didn’t win an argument or because a charging bull is chasing us. 

Daniel Goleman talks about the amygdala hijack, where our emotions produce a gut reaction rather than a measured response. We can lose access to the prefrontal cortex, the part of our brain responsible for rational thinking. Complex decision-making disappears, as does our access to multiple perspectives. As our attention narrows, we find ourselves trapped in the one perspective that makes us feel the most safe: “I’m right and you’re wrong,” even though we ordinarily see more perspectives.

But, the ability to make a rational decision and respond in a rational matter is exactly what we need to do in a difficult conversation.

We not only lose our ability to think clearly, but our bodies will betray us as well. When we’re experiencing heightened emotions, our faces can turn red, and we speak more rapidly. Emotions are contagious because they spread through a network of mirror neurons, tiny parts of the brain that allow us to empathize with others and understand what they’re feeling.  

We may enter into a difficult discussion with a colleague; they may begin to feel frustration and anger like we do. It’s a downward spiral that feeds on itself.

There are several things you can do to have hard conversation and not let your emotions take over. To keep focused, the guidelines below provide valuable insights and tips derived from neuroscience and professional experience.

1. Repeat the statement as a question

While mirror neurons can work against us if we’ve let our emotions take over, they can also work in our favor. When in a challenging conversation, we can mirror the mother person by repeating several keywords they use. 

For example, if you are a healthcare provider and challenge a colleague whom you’ve observed to have violated a core value of the hospital system. Perhaps you felt they put a patient at risk. After you confront them, listen carefully to their response. If they say, “I was under a lot of stress,” respond with, “A lot of stress?”  This invites your colleague to talk more in depth about what prompted their inappropriate behavior. It’s also a question that encourages more discussion. 

This does two things: First, it keeps you emotionally stable because now you’re focused on your colleague, not your sense of moral injury. Second, it alerts your colleague that you care about their well-being. When you mirror a word or thought, it permits them to go into greater depth about the issue. It also lets them know that you are truly listening.

How to make it work for you: Practice mirroring techniques with family and close friends. Get their feedback. When you mirrored back their response, did you focus on the right word or phrase? Practice mirroring the facial reactions of other people. Notice how they respond to you. If someone looks troubled or worried, mirror their expression to signal that you read them right where they are at that moment. 

2. Speak in soothing tones

When you use a soothing tone, your colleague or client will mirror your voice. Even if they are insulted or outraged by your conversation, never be the one to raise your voice. Instead, counter that emotional spiral with soft and soothing tones.

When you use a calm voice, it triggers a neurochemical reaction that calms the the other person’s brain. What’s more, it tends to calm you down as well. It’s a technique utilized by call centers who hire people who speak in soothing tones to help callers calm down. 

How to make it work for you: Here are tips on how you can train yourself to speak calmly:

  • Observe yourself in stressful situations and intentionally speak slowly and with less volume. 
  • Practice with pushing your voice through a wide range of tones when in easy conversation with friends. You will begin to identify what tone of voice sounds authentic to you in different situations.

3. Employ active listening

Active listening is desirable in all situations but is especially important when engaging in hard conversations. The opposite of active listening is waiting your turn to speak and using that valuable time to formulate your argument. Instead, focus on what the other person is saying. Ask questions to understand the other person’s point of view, needs, problems and desires. Only by actively listening can you establish a connection through empathy.

Empathy is the ability to recognize, understand and share the thoughts and feelings of another person. You can’t develop empathy if you don’t understand what the other person is saying or feeling. It requires you to prioritize what the other person wants rather than staying focused on your needs and goals.

How to make it work for you: Similar to learning how to control the tone and volume of your voice, practice active listening before you enter into a hard conversation. You already do this when friends and family confide in you and vice versa. An excellent way to develop empathy is reading good novels because the reader is placed into another person’s mind. 

4. Gather significant information

Before you engage in a difficult conversation with an employee, get feedback from other stakeholders in the company. There’s a good chance you may discover unexpected insight that can help contribute to your understanding of the situation. This new information can also save you precious time by quickly getting to the heart of the matter.

For entrepreneurs and business leaders, hard conversations with employees are part of the job. It might be about performance issues, personal challenges or office conflicts that disrupt the workflow. While keeping quiet might seem easier, nothing destroys morale faster than a leader who refuses to address issues.

How to make it work for you: Gathering significant information helps keep the focus on the issue. Most decisions are motivated by emotions, so having 1) an empathic approach and 2) good rational arguments for what you’re doing are both essential. It will make your employees feel comfortable and understood in your company.


LaRae Quy was an FBI undercover and counterintelligence agent for 24 years, during which she exposed and recruited foreign spies and developed the mental toughness to survive in environments of risk, uncertainty and deception. Find out if you’re mentally tough with Quy’s FREE, evidence-based Mental Toughness Assessment. Quy’s new book is “Secrets of a Strong Mind (2nd edition): How To Build Inner Strength To Overcome Life’s Obstacles.” Follow her on TwitterFacebookInstagram and LinkedIn.

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