top of page

Difficult Conversations And Conflict Resolution

Written by: Dr Lynda Ince-Greenaway, Executive Contributor

Executive Contributors at Brainz Magazine are handpicked and invited to contribute because of their knowledge and valuable insight within their area of expertise.


Most people want to avoid conflict and potentially stressful situations this is natural because we tend to find confrontation difficult, if not at the time of a difficult conversation, then after. Emotions that run high can last for hours, days, weeks, months and years. But let's face it conflict is a natural part of life; which means that it is impossible to avoid it. We face situations every day that are potential minefields. Misunderstanding can easily arise when we are unaware of the complexity of communication and how it can lead to conflict.

angry bossy business woman shout at irritated woman at work

People often find it easier to avoid communicating something that they think is going to be controversial or bad news, putting off the inevitable and allowing a situation to fester that could be easily resolved. The problem is that the longer we delay expressing how we feel the more difficult it is to speak. In a management meeting, the CEO wants to discuss a new strategy, but he knows the news he has to give will be unpalatable. He also knows that unless he tackles the problem, the company will not meet its targets. Yet, the topic he wants to discuss will have a huge impact on his staff because the risks are high. But we not only face difficult conversations at work but also in our personal relationships with family and friends. Ending a relationship, asking a friend to repay a loan, and settling a dispute between family members or colleagues are situations that could lead to difficult conversations.

A manager may delay telling an employee that their standard of work is unsatisfactory. He/she may put off having that 'difficult' conversation with staff, especially if it concerns some kind of emotional issue. In the same way that a parent may put off correcting a child for bad behaviour, the same is true in the work environment. This is what makes communication difficult because we often fear the reactions that might result from having a difficult conversation and the conflict that might result from it.

Most people can think of times when they have put off having that ‘difficult’ conversation. However, constantly putting off difficult conversations often lead to feelings of frustration, guilt, annoyance, anger, a reduction in self-confidence and, ultimately, increased anxiety and inner turmoil. The point is that most people tend to see conflictual conversations as unhealthy rather than focusing on conversations that are positive and beneficial to good health. By following some simple rules and you can master the skill of communication.

Rule 1: Unplanned Conversations

Unplanned conversations occurs when a person has not given thoughtful consideration to the situation they want to tackle and how they are going to approach the subject they want to discuss. In order to avoid stress and anxiety, you must pay careful attention to timing, the environment in which the conversation is to take place, privacy, your personal attitude towards the person with whom you are having the difficult conversation and the reason for having the conversation. During the process of planning, think about eye contact, proximity, where to sit and any possible reactions you might get from the person you are communicating with. I learnt the importance of having difficult conversations over thirty years ago when I was supervising a difficult member of staff. I did not plan the conversation but I called her into my office on the spur of the moment. I was guided by my emotions and how I felt on the day. The circumstances in the office also affected my ability to plan carefully. I was overwhelmed with work and it had an impact on my ability to plan for the conversation I was about to have. The result was disastrous because instead of approaching the member of staff in a calm way, I became accusatory and it immediately resulted in a conflict that I found difficult to manage. During our difficult conversation, there was denial and counter-denial until we reached a stage where we were stuck. I noticed that there was also a surge of emotions resulting in tears. Reflecting on that situation, I would approach it in a different way today simply by planning and giving thought to what was to be gained out of the conversation.

Remember that unplanned difficult conversations are more likely to lead to unanticipated aggression, shouting, finger-pointing, blaming, surges of anger, violation of another person’s rights and regret.

Rule 2: Planned Conversations

Planned conversations are more likely to lead to problem-solving because they enhance one’s listening skills. This approach to conflict resolution makes room for listening to what another person has to say and appreciating that their perspective is just as important as your own. In this way, the conversation reduces power imbalances and one-upmanship. The conversation is focused and kept within the bounds of professionalism. I had learnt from my unplanned conversation and shifted my thinking to planned conversations. Planned difficult conversations could include asking an employer to deal with discrimination and inequality in the workplace, asking for a pay rise or perhaps asking your manager for study leave.

Although these types of conversations are, by their nature, difficult the more you are able to act in a calm way and control your emotions the better outcome you are likely to achieve. It is planning your strategy and taking time to prepare that will help you to be confident in delivering your message. Planning will help you to anticipate how the other person might react and what you can do to compensate for any feelings of fear, denial and annoyance. When you plan a conversation remember that the other person might be unaware of their actions, but the attitude in which you approach the conversation could encourage them to acknowledge their behaviour. A difficult conversation often ends up being easier than was imagined when careful consideration is given to the atmosphere in which it happens. I have observed confrontational behaviours in open offices with a lack of respect. A planned meeting in privacy would give reassurance and open the door for positive communication. Conflict is not always negative but it can be a positive way of clearing the air, finding a solution and moving forward.

Rule 3: Manage The Conversation

We all enter the workplace to offer a service as well as to earn a living. It makes life easier if we can develop positive relationships as well. Communication in the workplace needs to be managed professionally, with understanding, tact, discretion and clarity of purpose particularly when it is necessary to communicate distressing news. For example, you may have to tell an employee that their job is at risk because of possible redundancies, that they are not meeting targets or that they have not passed a probationary period. Whatever the bad news might be a good communicator will recognise the need for diplomacy. Recently I was supervising a member of an organisation that was working towards a qualification. During our initial conversations, she appeared to be willing to work on the tasks we had set out in our agreement. But after three months her work deteriorated and I received one excuse after another. I knew that I had to be firm in telling her that she would not pass if her non-compliance continued.

This situation shifted into non-communication, reticence and conflict. I called a meeting to discuss her predicament. In order to manage the conversation, I avoided blame and tried to see the situation from her point of view. This did not mean that she was let off the hook, but I had a better understanding of the pressure she was facing with other work demands. Managing the conversation in this way led to a win-win outcome. I noticed that the ability to master the difficult conversation allowed her to be open and honest. She acknowledged that there were personal issues in her life that were affecting her work and her ability to concentrate. Giving her the time and space to vocalise her fears turned this situation around.

Rule 4: Work Out The Cost Of Ineffective Communication And Conflict

The inability to communicate effectively during conflict is a cost that is often overlooked and neglected in most organisations. At times it is assumed that if people turn up for work, they are fit to work, but this is not true. They may spend the first hour of their day hanging around the coffee machine and chatting about things that have nothing to do with work. Some staff spend their day looking at the clock waiting for the final hour of the day to arrive. Thus, time-wasting leads to conflict between managers and staff.

The inability to communicate during conflict has a cost for organisations because they may end up losing valuable staff with the expertise that they need. The cost of training staff to improve their skills is a valuable investment that will be lost. There are also health costs for individuals, the first of which is stress. When staff cannot manage conflict with the demands of work, they call in sick because they are unable to manage work-related stress. Extended absences of leave place a heavier burden on their colleagues, particularly if they have to fill in for the absent member of staff. Equally, the returning member of staff can face resentment and ill feelings from colleagues. It is well worth the time and energy to carry out a cost/benefits analysis of conflict and how it is likely to impact the health of staff due to criticism and passive conflict.

Rule 5: Be Aware Of Differences

There are several differences that can lead to communication breakdown and conflict during a difficult conversation. Some of the most common barriers that you should be aware of are language, race, cultural differences, ethnicity, education, status, religion, and gender. The list is innumerable and becomes ever more complex when there is a lack of understanding of different styles of transferring information. Generally speaking, conflict arises when we are unable to have meaningful dialogue because there is a problem that we are unable to overcome and a bridge that we are unable to cross. In these situations, it is the ability to move beyond the barrier and establish a conversation that is genuine and based on respect. Consider what you can do to establish dialogue and allow meaning to flow from it. Patterson et al. suggest that the concept of the pool of shared meaning is helpful in establishing common ground. They argue that when people openly and freely share their ideas it improves the quality of decision-making. I would also suggest that when people have a shared consensus of meaning, it breaks down barriers and leads to greater autonomy and less discrimination based on power differentials and differences that may be embedded in a conversation.

Rule 6 Examine Your Thought Processes

Thoughts are a function of the brain that help us to navigate difficult conversations. We have over 70,000 thoughts in a single day but it is how we filter them that makes the difference as to whether we act in a rational or aggressive way. During a difficult conversation, we tend to think first that we are right and the other person is wrong. The starting point is to think of your own prejudices and how they are unwittingly communicated during a conversation when there are strong emotions, convictions and opinions.

Allow your thoughts to go through a refining process before uttering words. The way to examine your thought processes is to think about the words you are using and how they are transmitted. People cannot read your mind, but they can gain an impression of who you are by your words and your interpersonal communication. A good strategy is to repeat your conversation to yourself, doing so will give you a good idea of how it will come across to others. Try to avoid allowing your emotions to bubble over into a heated argument that you may regret. Knowing how to act with emotional intelligence during a difficult conversation is an excellent way to examine your thought processes because it leads to a deeper level of self-awareness, improved social skills, interpersonal skills, and confidence all of which will lead to better listening and ultimately better leadership skills.

Conclusion: Communication is one of the best gifts we have for transacting relationships. From the start to the end of a conversation begin by focusing on what you want out of the conversation you are about to have, think of how you will navigate it and think of how you will resolve conflict and make it meaningful.

If you have been less than effective with your communication and ability to resolve conflict, contact Dr Lynda Ince-Greenaway to arrange an appointment.

Follow me on Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter and visit my website for more info!


Dr Lynda Ince-Greenaway, Executive Contributor Brainz Magazine

Dr Lynda Ince-Greenaway began her career in 1982 when she qualified as a social worker. After making child-care her specialism, she became a team leader and a manager. She has worked for forty years in the public and private social care sectors making a significant contribution to the development and learning of others. In her role as a manager, she developed leadership skills which she has used to teach and influence others. She became an educationalist working as a lecturer for many years. As a life coach, keynote speaker and author Dr Ince-Greenaway is known for her enthusiasm and passion concerning such issues as leadership, social justice, social inclusion, empowerment, personal development as well as the development of others.



  • linkedin-brainz
  • facebook-brainz
  • instagram-04


bottom of page