How to start a difficult discussion off right

Drake Editorial Team

The way you begin a difficult discussion can determine its fate. If you immediately trigger defensiveness or combativeness in the other, the chances of a productive outcome drop to nearly zero. If you know how to bring up difficult issues in ways that set the other person at ease, you increase the odds that they that will be willing and able to hear your point of view and talk about theirs honestly and non-defensively. That is what the following “Declaration Followed By Invitation” format is designed to do.

As the name implies, there are two parts to this language pattern: The Declaration, where you succinctly state the issue, and The Invitation, where you invite the person to share their perspective. In this article, we’ll map out the principles and techniques for making an effective ‘Declaration followed by The Invitation’, and by doing so, launch your conversation on a positive trajectory.


The Declaration

In the Declaration phase you “declare” what you want to discuss. The Declaration provides a context for your remarks, so they don’t appear to come out of the blue (e.g. “Freida… do you ever wonder what people think about you?”). You obviously want to avoid catching a person off guard as that usually triggers defensiveness.



"Roy, I want to talk with you about yesterday’s meeting. There was something that happened I felt uncomfortable with. Remember when I said that we could get the Jackson project underway immediately and you said ‘What are you… nuts!.’ To be honest, I was taken aback by that comment and wanted to see what was going on with you to say that.”

“Claire, I want to talk with you about some concerns I have about how you interact with the rest of the team. I’d like to get your perspective on a few interactions that have come to my attention because I know there are always two sides to everything, so what I’d like to do is run by each one at a time and get your perspective and then go from there…”


Tips on How to Make the Declaration Work:

1. Use only enough words to capture the issue. Don’t belabour it. If you go on and on, you’ll come across as lecturing or scolding:  two guaranteed ways to trigger defensiveness.

2. Be as concrete and specific as possible. Avoid speaking only in vague generalities or evaluative terms.



“Jeremy, I want to talk with you about being more respectful of others when they have a different point of view. An example that came up this morning was when Frank said…”

“Hazel, I want to talk with you about being more gracious when others need you to help out. Here’s what I mean: you know yesterday, when Sally asked if you could help out and you rolled your eyes and said ‘you again’ …”

3. Speak the truth, without blame or judgment, as recommended by Dr. Angelese Arrien, author of The Four Fold Way. Unless it’s a performance problem or some other issue that, by nature, has to include an evaluative component, try to keep your remarks descriptive and nonjudgmental. Describe what is going on and its effect, without going into judgments about the other person.



Instead of “Josh, I was really upset about your not bothering to call me to let me know the meeting was cancelled. That was incredibly unprofessional and inconsiderate. Because of that, I ended up spending three hours on the road for nothing!!!!.” Instead, you might say “Josh, I wanted to check in with you about my not getting a call that the meeting was cancelled. To be honest, I was pretty upset about it because that was three hours on the road I didn’t need to do.”

Instead of “Sally, I found four typos on this flyer after you proofed it. I can’t understand how you could have missed them,” you might say “Sally, I’m concerned about the fact that I found four typos on this flyer after you proofed it. At the risk of stating the obvious, if I hadn’t checked it before sending it out to the printers, we would have been left with 10,000 brochures we couldn’t use.”

4. Try to express your displeasure without spicing up your language with exaggerations or inflammatory words. For instance, in the last example, notice that at the end of the more desirable Declaration, it says “… we would have been left with 10,000 brochures we couldn’t use” instead of “…stuck with 10,000 useless brochures.” Although the latter statement is equally true, it obviously comes across as more judgmental and even scolding, which will likely trigger defensiveness. This is also why running by your proposed Brief Declaration to a trusted third party before you have the conversation can be helpful. They’re more likely to catch potentially inflammatory phrasings than you would, because they’re not emotionally caught up in the situation.

5. Decide on whether you want to talk in terms of problem/solution or just solution. If the issue is about something another person is doing that you want them to do differently, or has done that you don’t want them to do again, decide on whether you want to include both the problem and your desired outcome in your Declaration or if you just want to frame the issue in terms of the outcome you would like. If you have a good relationship with the person, you can probably state explicitly what the problem is, and they’ll be able to hear you without becoming defensive. If your relationship with the other person is especially contentious or the issue is a touchy one, you would probably do best by stating what you want to happen differently in the future, rather than talking about the problem. If they don’t understand why the issue is a problem, then you will need to talk specifically about it.

6. Communicate “Perspective” rather than “Absolute Truth”. When dealing with a touchy topic where the person could easily become defensive, use qualifiers to clearly indicate that you’re stating your perspective, not an absolute truth. (e.g. “It seems to me that…” or “Maybe I’m reading too much into the situation, but it seems like…”)

7. Try to talk about the problem as a separate entity. If you can talk about the problem as a separate entity, rather than in a “you did this” way, you decrease the chances the person will get defensive. (e.g. “I’m really concerned about the report not being done on time and would like to hear what happened… so that it can be avoided in the future” versus “I’m upset that you were late in getting the report to me.”)

8. Whenever possible, give the person the benefit of the doubt. Do this if for no other reason than it increases the odds they will be honest with you and decreases the odds they’ll become defensive. This is especially important with issues where you might have no clue about their perspective and they may be seeing YOU as the problem. Going into these conversations in a righteous or accusing way when they feel you’re at fault makes it likely that they will feel angry, resentful, or even outraged – hardly a productive emotional state to have a conversation in.

9. Pay attention to your voice tone and intensity level. This is especially important if you’re upset or tend to have an intense or overpowering personality.


The Invitation

After you briefly state your concern and/or desired outcome, the next step is to invite the person to speak. As mentioned above, the sooner you get to this step, the better.

1. Demonstrate sincere interest through voice tone and body language. Make sure neither is combative or accusatory.

2. Make it easier for the person to speak openly and honestly. If you believe the person might be reluctant to share their perspective or feelings with you because of the power differential, or because they might be embarrassed, or they’re just uncomfortable talking about that issue, you can use two techniques to make it easier for them to do so. These are ‘Mention the Unmentionable’ and ‘The Multiple Choice Opener’.

3. Mention the Unmentionable. If there’s an issue that you suspect is on their mind, and you believe they are reluctant to bring it up, for whatever reason, you can bring it up. Doing this communicates “It’s OK to talk about this issue.” This is especially useful in situations where you are trying to get someone who has less power than you to open up.

a. “I’m wondering if you feel like I was really off base in my approach to that…”
b. “Are you feeling like what I’m asking for is unreasonable?”
c. “Did you feel like I was too heavy handed in the way I handled that?”

4. Use The “Multiple Choice Opener.” - You give the person even more freedom to speak their truth when you use the Multiple Choice Opener. With this language pattern, you mention two or more possible perspectives or underlying issues that might be in play. For instance: “Brenda, I want to check in about why that project didn’t get done on time… was it because I wasn’t clear in what I wanted …or maybe I didn’t make it clear that it was a priority… or was it something else?”.

By providing alternatives, you’re communicating several important messages. First, because you’re mentioning the unmentionable –- or actually several possible unmentionables -- it communicates that it’s OK to talk honestly about what’s going on. Second, it shows that you’ve thought about the issue, which shows you care about the person. Third, it communicates that you’re not wedded to a particular interpretation or explanation. This open-endedness shows the person that you’re not trying to control the conversation or force them to agree to something that isn’t true from their perspective. When the Multiple Choice Opener ends in a “… or something else?” it makes this language pattern even more permissive and open-ended.



“Did you feel like your point of view was heard or does it feel like I still don’t quite get it?”

“Are you feeling like I’m being unreasonable in my request… or do you think it’s reasonable, but you’re just overwhelmed right now with the other things you have to do…. or is there some other factor I don’t know about, that’s coming into play?”

5. Recognize you can acknowledge without agreeing. Keep in mind that when you offer possible perspectives or issues in Mentioning the Unmentionable and the Multiple Choice Opener, you are not saying they are true. You are simply letting the other person know that, if they are feeling this way, it’s OK to talk about it. So for instance, in the example of Mentioning the Unmentionable: “Are you feeling like what I’m asking for is unreasonable?” Your bringing it up doesn’t mean if the person says “Yes” your response is “OK, I’ll never ask that again.” It means that if they do see it that way, you want to hear their point of view and discuss it. You might end up seeing it their way and you might not.

6. Ask questions with care. If you phrase your Invitation in the form of a question, make sure your voice tone is as low-key as possible, and not accusatory. Avoid “Why” questions if possible as people tend to associate them with being a child, when “Why did you do that?” really meant “You did something wrong!”


Closing Thoughts

The time, study, and effort you put into increasing your skill at bringing up difficult issues will pay off handsomely in terms of less conflict and more productive relationships.

There is obviously a lot more to making a difficult discussion work than the opening, but the opening is perhaps the most important part of the conversation to be skillful at, as it sets the tone and the trajectory

David Lee is the founder and principal of http://www.humannatureatwork.com. He’s an internationally recognized authority on organizational and managerial practices that optimize employee performance, morale, and engagement. He is also the author of Managing Employee Stress and Safety, as well as over almost 100 articles and book chapters. You can download more of his articles at www.humannatureatwork.com or contact him at [email protected].

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