Three steps to effectively manage a conversation

What do you do when you are facing a conversation you find difficult?

Steffan Surdek
November 30, 2020
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We all have those discussions that we would like to avoid. When we are in them, we cannot wait to get what we need to say off our chest and walk out. But this is far from the best way to do it.

A lot of my work when I coach my clients revolves around communication. I help them have the conversations that are not currently happening in their lives. In my article about the real cost of conversational debt, I explain why it is so important to have these conversations.

Part of what I teach every day is how to use these difficult conversations to create powerful change. Today, we will talk about the three steps you need to follow to effectively manage a conversation you are engaging in.

Before getting into the conversation

Let’s take a quick moment to talk about what to do BEFORE entering the discussion with the other person. How often do you rush into a conversation without a clear idea of where you want to end up… What happens for you when you do that?

It is best to take some time to prepare, ground yourself and identify what your intention is for the discussion. Do you have clarity on the situation or the problem you want to talk about? What is the outcome you are rooting for?

Taking even a few minutes of preparation beforehand will help you feel more centered and confident. You will also be able to better guide the conversation in the direction you are hoping for.

All of this being said, let’s talk about the three steps you can follow to keep a conversation constructive once you are in it.

Step #1: Notice what is going on

The first step you need to follow is to be curious and to be more aware in the conversation.

Notice what you are saying and how you are saying it. Are your words and tone aligned with the intention you set out in your preparation? If they are, great, but if they are not, what do you need to do to adjust?

The next thing you can notice is how the person is receiving what you are saying. Is the other person in a good place or having a negative reaction? What is their body language, their language or the tone of their voice telling you?

Bring awareness to how you are receiving what the person is telling you. Notice whether you are listening to understand, or listening to better attack their points. What are you understanding? What are some of your assumptions?

Does it sound like a two-way conversation? There are times you may feel like you are not even in the same conversation, as if you are experiencing two different realities. You may disagree with what the other person is saying, but can you see how from their perspective it can seem true?

This noticing stage may feel like a lot of effort, but that is mostly because you are not used to doing it. At first you may find it difficult to notice some of these things. The more you do it, the more it will become second nature.

Step #2: Elevate the conversation

The next step is the hardest to learn and apply when having a difficult conversation.

There are different ways to elevate a conversation. The first one is to allow space for emotions. Coaches often use a term called “holding the space” for others. This means creating a safe space where people can express their emotions without judgement. You have to respect that some things may come from a place of frustration and anger and to not take it personally.

If a conversation gets too emotionally charged, a useful tool is to come back to your intention and do a reset. This can sound something like: “Ok, we are both a bit too emotionally charged right now. It may not be the right time to have this conversation. How about we take a break and try again in a few days?”

Another piece of holding the space is avoiding personal attacks and judgements. This can be hard! There may be times when someone slips, but how you react to the slip is what elevates the conversation. Avoid responding to them, or call them out nicely and the other person will eventually stop.

Elevating the conversation is also about challenging what is being said if you feel it is out of line or not right. When challenging, it is important to stick to facts and not subjective opinions. Words like “always” and “never” are invitations to challenge.

When having a difficult conversation, you can get caught up in how you feel and how you see the world. When this happens, you can forget that everyone sees the world through their own lens. In some situations, it can create the possibility that you are both right. It just depends on how you are looking at things.

To elevate the conversation, accept and express the differences in your perspectives. If you can see how you are both right in what you are saying, it becomes easier to find a solution that works for everyone.

You can also elevate the conversation by having the courage to speak the unspoken. You may find yourself skirting around a topic and not naming something that needs to be named.

The secret here is in how you will frame what you want to say. Ask permission first. “Is it ok if I bring up something potentially uncomfortable?” Once you get that permission say what you have to say in the most respectful way possible. Be tactful but honest.

Another way to elevate the conversation is to acknowledge the other person's good intentions or positive efforts. This will help them feel that you are bringing up some positives and not only negative points.

Step #3: Remember it is just a conversation

The final step is remembering that a difficult conversation can be just like any other conversation. Often what makes a conversation difficult is the meaning and the difficulty that we attach to it.

When you think about it, any conversation you have has the potential to turn into a difficult one at any time. The difference here is the anticipation and the anxiety that rise up when you want to tackle a sensitive topic.

I love this quote from Steven Segal: “Anticipation of death is worse than death itself.”

What I am trying to say is this: don’t turn the conversation into something bigger in your mind than what it needs to be. One of the key things when creating a conversation is framing it at the start. If this is a difficult conversation for you, you can state that up front as well.

To do this, you can say something like: “This conversation is not going to be easy for me. I may say some things the wrong way. Could you please cut me some slack if that happens?”

I can imagine some of you cringing at the thought of using this example! Find words that sound right for you. The point is that showing some vulnerability goes a long way to making a tough conversation a bit easier.

So remember that many times, a difficult conversation will only be as difficult as you choose to make it for yourself. This statement actually applies to before, during and after the conversation!


Having real conversations is an art, but the good news is that you can learn it. Keep practicing and be patient with yourself. It is normal to not get everything right the first time!

You will start seeing that you create more openness for real dialogue when you align with your intention and listen to the other person.

Accept the emotions that are sure to appear. Hold the space for the other person to express themselves without judgement. A lot of it is also about being courageous and speaking the unsaid.

Chances are the so-called “difficult” conversation will turn out to be much easier than what you expected!

How are you currently having the difficult conversations in your life? How could having them in a different way make your life easier?