The number 1 way to make a difficult conversation easier

Need to have a difficult conversation with an employee, peer, or supervisor at work? Whether it’s a subordinate whose behavior is undermining the team, a peer who took credit for your work, or a micromanaging boss, the stakes can be high. But the costs of not speaking up can be even higher.

According to Stacie Behler, the best way to make a difficult conversation less arduous is to imagine yourself with…a toddler?!

Allow me to explain.

Stacie Behler is a former attorney who is now Group Vice President for Public Affairs and Communication at Meijer, a Midwest retailer. She’s a professional communicator who offers some unique best practices when it comes to handling difficult workplace conversations. In a recent webinar, I asked Behler to share some of what she’s learned.

“Let’s say you’re babysitting a two-year-old and the toddler runs across the room and trips,” says Behler. In the excruciating moments that follow, you might freeze, holding your breath while a look of horror flashes across your face, waiting to see whether a baby will scream and combust into tears. But it doesn’t have to be that way.

How you react in that moment can determine the outcome. “The toddler takes her cues from the drama surrounding the event,” notes Behler. If you react to the situation positively, the rambunctious tyke may just pick herself up and continue playing.

It’s much the same, continues Behler, when you find yourself having a hard conversation at work. “We take our cues from others regarding which direction a conversation is going. If you wrap a difficult conversation in a lot of drama, or use intimidating language, things can quickly escalate,” Behler says. When drama is introduced to an already knotty conversation, it makes matters worse.

This is true no matter who the challenging conversation is with or the purpose of the discussion. It’s the case during a performance review with a subordinate who’s had a rough year, or when asking a peer to stop delivering unnecessarily harsh judgments, or even calling out your supervisor’s manager for a serious policy violation. “The more you can strip away the drama from the conversation, “the easier it is to get to the heart of the matter,” says Behler.

To begin, strip away the drama from the conversation, says Behler. Here are five steps to take before, during, and after a difficult conversation.


1. Make an investment in building a strong, drama-free workplace long before any hint of conflict appears on the horizon, advises Behler. “Difficult conversations can be made easier by laying the proper foundation in relationships,” she says. So pay attention to building trust and communicating with transparency on a daily basis.

2. Prepare for troublesome conversations ahead of time by gathering your data and facts. It can help to walk through the exchange ahead of time in your head or role-play with a trusted colleague or partner.


3. When it’s time to have that chat, stay calm, keep your talking points factual, and be a good, patient listener, recommends Behler. “If you can strip away the drama from your leadership style and replace it with dignity and respect, it will make the conversation a lot easier for you,” she says. “But more importantly, it will make it a lot easier for the person with whom you’re speaking.”


4. You may feel a sense of relief after the dialogue takes place, but that by no means is the end of the process. If you and the individual agree on a course of action, follow through. “Nothing will erode the relationship more or discredit you as a leader than failing to follow through, so make sure you follow up on those agreed-upon action steps.”

5. Lastly, continue to build the relationship. “Always be respectful and invest in relationship-building,” says Behler. “The success of that difficult conversation depends in large part on what happens afterward.”

This article first appeared on Be Leaderly.