Things I’ve learned….challenging conversations

Published 16th Apr 2018

This is the first in our new series of articles which provide practical advice and resources for women at the top or on their way there. Watch out for more on our themes of:- Leadership skills; Innovation; Business and finance; Public speaking; Confidence and Great books for leaders If you’d like to contribute, contact the team on

Things I’ve learned: Stop dodging the challenging conversations!

Do you avoid challenging conversations? Reading these words, you probably have a physical or emotional reaction. You might even see the conversation that you need to have flash into your mind. It might be about money or promotion (and much of the current gender pay gap debate suggests that women do avoid those challenging conversations). It might also be about things which aren’t going so well in your business, issues of underperformance, work relationships or lack of results.

In my coaching work, I see how difficult those conversations can be. Things go unsaid, misunderstandings continue, resentment and dissatisfaction builds as avoidance tactics become more and more sophisticated. But that comes at a cost – a cost to the business as well as a personal cost in terms of stress and well-being.   The people I work with want to understand how to make those conversations easier to have and manage the reactions they might get.

We work on a number of things that help – for example, putting yourself in the shoes of the other person and figuring out the worst thing that can happen. Usually we agree that the consequences of having the conversation are likely to be better than avoiding it.

What then helps enormously is a conversation framework which can be used to take the emotion out and get the argument right. This prevents that adrenaline rush which scrambles your brain and makes it almost impossible to think clearly and respond rationally. If you want to avoid that scrambled brain syndrome, preparation is absolutely key. Knowing what you want to say and anticipating all the things the other person might say, gives you the best possible chance of avoiding fight or flight mode.

What’s more, if you stick to the facts, then it’s very difficult for people to argue back and unlikely that they’ll become defensive or go on the attack. Remove the emotion and you might find that the other person wants to resolve the issue too.

I recently read a book which has become a firm favourite and which I recommend to everyone I coach. It’s called Fierce Conversations, by Susan Scott – and it uses real business scenarios from her own coaching experience to demonstrate the value of intense preparation, a full rehearsal and a structured, factual approach when there’s a big issue on the table. It gives excellent scripts to follow, which reduce the stress and get better outcomes. In short it’s a recipe for going for those challenging conversations and having them go well.

Top tips for challenging conversations:

  1. Be absolutely clear about the issue you want to resolve and why
  2. Be specific. Give specific examples of what has happened or what you want to discuss.
  3. Show the impact. Explain why it matters to you and the business
  4. Be clear that you want to fix the issue, not attribute blame
  5. Listen to the other side of the story. Park your own preferred solution till you have all the facts.

I wish I’d read Fierce Conversations when I was 26. I know it would have given me the tools and the courage to have more of those conversations which make offices better places to be and homes better places to live in.

Fierce Conversations by Susan Scott

Lindsay Paterson is an Executive Coach, working with new and established leaders to build strategies for a successful, sustainable business life. CoachingConsultants