We Have to Talk ~ Mastering our Fear over Difficult Conversations

Communication Conundrum Created by Fear of Conflict

 As human beings we have the ability to not only change but shape the world we live in through the power of the written and spoken word.  Our ability to harness the power of effective communication through interpersonal skills as leaders is vital to the overall health and wellbeing of not only ourselves but also our colleagues and teams.  Yet, as leaders we seem to be just waiting for the right opportunity, the right audience, the right moment, the right catalyst and the right subject matter.  So, what is it that we are we waiting for? It seems to me that too many of us are waiting for the perfect utopic scenario where our message will be received with enthusiasm, engagement and yes, agreement.   In essence we are waiting to deliver only positive ideas, news and information because we just want to be liked and perhaps harbouring a fear of conflict.

As children we learned the valuable skills of class room or play ground etiquette, and quickly assimilated into the 'rules of engagement' of inviting others to join us, asking to join others and even holding our own ground and making our own decisions of what we were willing to live, work or play with.  We weren't as afraid to simply say "NO", or "I don't like that" and our peers would quickly recognize the messages both verbal and non verbal (ignoring or choosing not to play with them) and correct behaviours or find others to socialize with.  Sometimes, we relied on adults to help coach or mentor more caring conversations, where we better learned the power of our words and how to control our emotions and behaviours to be more acceptable in social settings.

One would think that as we get older, we would indeed become wiser and more skilled; having at our disposal an arsenal of tools and strategies, a fully developed vocabulary and years of interpersonal experiences to have honed our interpersonal communication skills.  Yet, it seems for many having an honest dialogue has become something daunting and just outside our reach.  Did we loose our oratory skills along the way?  Are we simply asking too much from our leaders to be responsible to communicate unsavory information?  Or is it that somewhere over time we have learned to fear conflict, and therefore have programmed ourselves to avoid it at all costs?  Where there is fear, we have a natural response to either fight or take flight; often taking the path of least resistance will offer far less stress, and so we continue to avoid having important conversations. 

While not all work issues are as simple as those encountered while traversing the playground or classroom, our work environment is still very much our shared sandbox.  Should we still not be able to advocate strongly for ourselves and others in our daily lives and work environment?  We all have a responsibility to understand and follow the basic rules of engagement and etiquette in our workspace.  We are all human, and as such we will make mistakes, we will have differing opinions, ideas and thoughts.  We all come to work with our own unique personalities, and communication styles.  We all carry our own personal baggage, and manage emotions differently.  While all of these wonderful things that make us - us; they also create the opportunity for potential conflict. 

The honest truth is that all conflict needs to be addressed, and effective management of employees or colleagues sometimes requires having difficult conversations.  We know that conflict has a high cost to a work environment.  Conflict creates chaos in the work space impacting productivity, efficiencies, creativity and so much more.  Beyond the bottom line, it also costs us our valued employees.  Conflict creates high stressors which can lead to mental health issues and illness in our workforce.  It facilitates a higher turn over of our key resource: the people powering the team.  With the costs being so high, it stands to reason that we should want to invest time and energy to improve our work environments. 

Instead we invest our time and energy into actually growing and feeding the problems.  All to often we actually become a part of the problem, through avoidance or worse yet propagation via complaining and talking about the problem or conflict with individuals who have little or no stake, or have no intention of seeking solutions.  Why is it that we are able to have a conversation with everyone or anyone who will listen with the exception of the person(s) that we need to have the conversation with?  If we recognize that there is an issue, situation or concern it becomes our responsibility to act.  Be a part of the solution.  Avoidance only creates an additional barrier to resolution.  Take action, in as timely a manner as possible. 

It's time for some old fashioned 'straight talk'.  Having meaningful conversations can often be uncomfortable for both parties involved.  Work through it! Develop this important aspect of interpersonal relations and grow as a leader.   Regardless of our role in the work environment, we all have a responsibility Speak Up and to bring compassion and empathy back to the work place.   It's time to Talk It Out and take ownership of our role and responsibility in creating a positive, cohesive and collaborative work environment.

 One Meaningful Conversation at a Time

Be Prepared


  • Take some time to reflect and outline the key speaking points, what are the main issues or concerns.  Prioritize when required. There are plenty of resources and templates to help guide your discussion agenda, find one that works for you. 

  • Know your Audience.  Ensure that with your strategy you have considered what the audience is going to require for the message and information to be received.  How do they process information and think?  What is their workplace personality style or learning style?  Catering to your audience will help with the plan and delivery methods you choose.

  • Examples:

  • DESC Approach - Describe concern, issue or problem, Explain provide evidence, examples, data, analysis and the impact our outcome, Solutions provide some suggestions or ask for ideas, Consequence or Outcome is the place to highlight how the solution would positively impact the outcome, or the consequence if the advice or solution not taken.

    The B.E.E.R. Model

    The following model provides you with an effective process for creating and delivering difficult feedback. Try to include all four elements in your feedback to employees or colleagues.

    B Behavior: Identify what the employee is doing or not doing that is unacceptable.

    E Effect: Explain why the behavior is unacceptable, how it hurts productivity/ business performance.

    E Expectation: Explain what you expect the employee to do or not do to change. Or Elevation: Explain how a new behaviour, action could be adopted for a positive result.

    R Result: Identify what will happen if the employee changes (positive tone) or what will be the consequences if the behavior continues (negative tone).

Set location

  • When possible try to provide or choose a neutral space for having the conversation. 

  • Also consider choosing a quieter and private location.


  • This will vary again based on the subject matter and the audience, but you can find resources on conversation starters too.  The important thing is to initiate from a place of caring and with positive intentions.


  • Follow your plan, but not to the point of being only scripted.  You need to allow for a genuine interaction, time to listen, ask questions and reflect.  You may find that you need to table the discussion for a future date if control is lost on the part your yourself or your colleague.


  • Always take the time to wrap up the discussion or conversation this offers the opportunity to thank your colleague for participating in the difficult or uncomfortable conversation.  It can provide a space to reflect on solutions or ideas that have arisen during the conversation.

Importance of Control

  • Situation

  • Emotions

  • Action

Both parties are responsible to maintain a professional and caring demeanour during the dialogue.  This can be very challenging during difficult conversations, as it is hard to not take feedback personally and have feelings hurt during the process.  Even the best of communicators can struggle with the perception of the message, tone, body language by the audience from time to time.  Remember that it is ok to take a break, or reschedule the discussion should there be a loss of control during the meeting.  Remind yourself that you can only truly control yourself; your behaviours, actions and words are your responsibility to monitor and regulate.

Remember You've Got this

  • Be Open
  • Breathe
  • Acknowledge perspective of the other person
  • Be Compassionate
  • Slow Down
  • Listen
  • Give something back
  • Reflect & Learn

There will come a time in your career, and perhaps multiple opportunities where you will be confronted with a situation which needs to be resolved.  Remember that you always have the capacity to change and shape your world through careful communication, and conquering your fear of conflict one conversation at a time.  Good luck and keep talking:)