Difficult Conversations

by Barbara Buffton

On the receiving end

This topic has so far focused on you being the person to initiate the difficult conversation. But what if you were the one on the receiving end? What if your boss, colleague, direct report or client has asked to speak with you on a ‘delicate’ matter? You may or may not know what it is about. Either way, how can you prepare yourself?


Preparation is as important if you are to be on the receiving end as it is if you are initiating the difficult conversation. You may not be able to prepare for every eventuality, but there is still some mental preparation you can do.

  1. Gather as much information as you can

If the person hasn’t told you what it is about, ask them for some clue so that you can prepare yourself. Then ask if you can get back to them later: ‘So I can better focus on what you have to say, give me a few minutes/half an hour and then we’ll meet’.

If a boss has just said ‘We need to talk. Come and see me at 4pm’ and hasn’t given you a chance to ask why, all you can do is to brainstorm all the possibilities. You still might not hit on the right topic, but it’s better than doing nothing at all.

  1. Assume positive intent

By making an assumption that the person who has requested to see you wants a positive outcome – a win/win – for the both of you, you are already making the conversation easier.

  1. Prepare your response

If you do have an inkling of what the topic is, then prepare your response. Practise what you are going to say and how you are going to say it. Refer to the section on rapport in this topic.

Know what it is you want as a result.

During the conversation

Below are three tips to remember once you are having the conversation.

  1. Get curious

Once in the conversation, just be curious. It will help you to stay detached and non-emotional. Ask for facts and evidence. Listen carefully and check your understanding before you respond. It is worth remembering that feedback is information. It’s up to you what you do with it – take it on board, challenge its veracity or provenance, or dismiss it.

  1. Take your time

If the topic of conversation has been a shock to you and you need time to process and digest the information you have been given, ask for time out.

  1. Be solution-focused

Talking about the problem keeps you in the problem. Once you have understood what the issues are, start exploring possible solutions. Blame is pointless and wastes energy, as it gets you nowhere.


Think of a recent conversation you had with someone that you didn’t initiate and that you found difficult.

How much of the above did you do?

And if there were things you didn’t do, how much might they have helped?