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Initiate difficult conversations with these 4 steps

Difficult conversations take work, and starting them is often the hardest part.

5 min read


Initiate difficult conversations with these 4 steps


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Lead Change is a leadership media destination with a unique editorial focus on driving change within organizations, teams, and individuals. Lead Change, a division of Weaving Influence, publishes twice monthly with SmartBrief. Today’s post is by Nate Regier.

At about this time last year, our company was actively reaching out to a worldwide network of clients and friends, asking how we could support them during the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic. We empathized with the anxiety and fear, and we wanted to help.

Shortly after George Floyd’s death, I reached out to one friend who leads diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives for a company in Atlanta. Her request was simple but profound; “We just need better ways to talk to each other right now.” She spoke not only to the stress and strain of COVID-19 but also to the heightened tension around race relations and political division.

Since then, our company has had hundreds of conversations with leaders passionately seeking better ways to have those hard conversations. Questions like these were top of mind during these conversations:

  • How do I start a conversation when I feel guilty and embarrassed?
  • How do I express my feelings authentically without aggression?
  • How do I confront inappropriate behavior while respecting the dignity of the person?
  • How do I validate someone’s struggle while holding them accountable for their behavior?
  • How do I distinguish between responsibility for what happened and responsibility for what’s next? 

So, how DO we talk about difficult, emotional stuff without it escalating and making things worse?

Enter Compassionate Accountability

One way to answer these questions is with Compassionate Accountability.

Compassion originates from the Latin root meaning “to suffer with.” It’s more than empathy and more than altruism. It’s about struggling together in a spirit of dignity to create something new. While compassion certainly includes respect for human dignity, it also involves accountability for behavior without continuing the cycle of violence.

Here are four steps for applying Compassionate Accountability to help guide that next conversation.

Step 1: Own and express your feelings without blaming

Emotional responses are normal, healthy and an important compass for how we are doing with what’s happening around us. Caring about and hearing people’s emotions can be uncomfortable, but it’s one of the most important means to validate and truly see each other as human beings.

Expressing our feelings can get ugly when we don’t take personal responsibility for our emotions and confuse them with behaviors.

Some commonly used emotional words — disrespected, attacked, hurt, left out — violate this principle of personal responsibility and only make things worse. These are blaming words because they imply that someone else made you feel bad. The problem with these emotional words is that they confuse behavior (what someone did) with feelings (how I feel about it) and makes it difficult to practice Compassionate Accountability.

Owning your feelings without blaming them on someone else’s behavior in no way condones the behavior, nor is it the end of the conversation. Instead, it is an act of personal accountability, and it paves the way for more productive conversations about new behaviors and commitments.

Step 2: Use discomfort as your ally

How often have you avoided a necessary conversation because you were too uncomfortable?

Maybe you just completed anti-racism training and left feeling responsible, embarrassed or guilty but didn’t know how to have that next conversation. In moments like these, vulnerability is your greatest ally.

Being vulnerable about how you are feeling levels the playing field, supports safety and reveals your true intentions.

Step 3: Mind the gap; own your part

Conflict is any gap between what we want and what we are experiencing. That gap generates a lot of emotional energy, which is uncomfortable, but it can be expressed in healthy ways. Although you aren’t responsible for what others do, you are responsible for what you want instead and how you respond.

Step 4: Awareness is necessary but not sufficient to change behavior

Knowledge and awareness around DEI education aren’t enough. Communication training on how to have authentic, difficult, emotional conversations using Compassionate Accountability is necessary to move from conflict to positive outcomes. Knowledge is not enough.

Closing the knowing-doing gap involves giving people the tools to translate awareness into action and helping them feel confident in that next difficult conversation.

Compassionate Accountability is a skill that translates beyond any particular conflict or dimension of diversity. By owning and expressing our feelings without blame, minding our part in the communication gap, leveraging discomfort to move forward and being aware enough to close the knowing-doing gap, is how conflict can become transformational.


Nate Regier, Ph.D., is the CEO and founding owner of Next Element Consulting, a global leadership firm dedicated to bringing compassion into the workplace. Regier is a former practicing psychologist and expert in social-emotional intelligence, interpersonal communication, and leadership. Recognized as a top 100 keynote speaker, he is the author of three books, including his newest book, “Seeing People Through: Unleash Your Leadership Potential with The Process Communication Model.” He hosts the podcast “On Compassion with Dr. Nate.

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