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Overcome barriers to difficult conversations

When you have the right mindset, you can push through discomfort and have the conversations that matter.

4 min read



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People often disagree about what makes a particular kind of conversation difficult. Whether it’s a performance conversation or admitting a mistake, a situation that seems extremely uncomfortable to one person is pretty straightforward to another.

While we may disagree about what specifically makes a conversation difficult to initiate, there are barriers present in every single difficult conversation:

Those barriers are:

  • Fear of the other person’s response
  • Emotional discomfort

Let’s address these two barriers in more depth and then I’ll share some mindsets and an awareness skill to overcome them.

Barrier 1: Fear of the other person’s response

No one likes to have a conversation with someone who is defensive, sensitive or a hot head.

Managers avoid difficult performance conversations because they want to avoid the other person’s anger or defensiveness.

It’s good to remember remember when it comes to avoidance, the fear is rooted in your own mind, made up of your own imagination, not from something that has actually happened. You haven’t even had the conversation, and you are already assuming what they are going to say, and how they are going to feel.

The brain seeks certainty so we humans try to figure out what to expect. And, to be fair, if you already have a history with someone, you probably have a pretty good idea of how they are going to respond. This knowledge can make avoidance seem like a good idea.

If you don’t have a history, it’s the unknown that is unsettling. This leads to our second barrier: Emotional discomfort.

Barrier 2: Emotional discomfort

 Our predictions about how the other person is going to respond causes a lot of mind drama. In other words, it’s not just their reactions you dread, but how you feel based on their reaction.

  • If they cry, you feel guilty.
  • If they get defensive, you get angry.
  • If they try to derail the conversation, you get overwhelmed.

These two barriers often lead to unproductive conversations. Here are three mindsets and one skill to help you overcome barriers.

Mindset 1:  The other person is capable

In your mind’s eye, see the person you need to talk to as capable. Don’t see them as an enemy, or as someone who is too sensitive. See that person as strong enough to hear you if you present yourself from the right intention.

Mindset 2: There is a different possibility than the one I’m seeing

Be open to the possibilities. Instead of making up a story about how you think they will respond, leave a little space of unknown to tap into a different possibility. If you can stay present, you might be surprised at how differently even someone with whom you have a history might respond. Give them a chance.

Mindset 3: People are responsible for their own emotional responses

The third skill is to be OK with whatever emotional response other people exhibit. Tell yourself that the feeling they experience belongs to them. Let them take ownership. If they cry, you can pause and hand over a Kleenex. If they get defensive, you can take a breath and ask to continue the conversation later if need be. Their response is OK.

You don’t need to control them; you only need to be in charge of your own emotions.

Skill to practice

Identify all the feelings and emotions that might surface as you envision talking with this person. Become intimately familiar with your own experience to begin to understand and accept other people’s responses. Here’s a list to get you started.

  • Intimidation
  • Embarrassment
  • Sadness
  • Anger
  • Frustration
  • Feeling rejected
  • Overwhelm
  • Distracted
  • Defensiveness
  • Shame
  • Feeling judged
  • Being misunderstood

There’s a good reason we are afraid of our own and of other people’s feelings. Feelings often lead to unproductive behaviors such as lashing out, avoiding, withdrawing or a number of other actions that affect productivity, relationships, self-esteem, leadership and personal effectiveness.

When you see the other person as capable, and you open to a new possibility and you face the emotions without being afraid of them, you lay the foundation for initiating a conversation that helps you get positive results.


Marlene Chism is a consultant, international speaker and the author of “Stop Workplace Drama” (Wiley 2011), “No-Drama Leadership” (Bibliomotion 2015) and “7 Ways to Stop Drama in Your Healthcare Practice” (Greenbranch 2018).  Download “The Bottom Line: How Executive Conversations Drive Results.” Connect with Chism via LinkedInFacebook and Twitter and at

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