Jerry Causier

Article Summary:

How to psyche yourself up for a difficult conversation.

Having Difficult Conversations

One way to help people face whatever it is they determine to be a difficult conversation is to do a simple risk/benefit analysis. This may sound far too complicated to be practical, but the process can be simplified so that it literally takes just a few seconds.

Step one: Honestly ask yourself, "What's the worst thing that can happen if I don't have this conversation?"
As much as it's important to be positive in your approach to interactions with people, this is one of the few times when you need to gain leverage to proceed, so you need to realistically consider the worst case scenario. This leverage can powerfully motivate you to move forward and initiate the interaction. For example, you may be considering having a conversation with someone about the fact that they haven't been filling out the inventory order form correctly for your shoe store. When considering the worst case scenario, you may decide that if you don't have this conversation your employee will continue to fill out the form incorrectly, your inventory will not be what it should be and you could ultimately end up going out of business. Clearly in this case the potential benefits far outweigh the risk of not proceeding, and with this leverage you will be far more likely to proceed with the conversation.

Conversely, there may be occasions when you go through this exercise and realize that the worst case scenario isn't really that bad. Perhaps you work as a chef and there is another temperamental, but very talented chef who keeps returning a measuring spoon to the second drawer instead of the top one, as you prefer. What's the worst case scenario? Well, the spoon is still clean, so there's no risk of contamination. It's still in a drawer so it's not likely to get lost or damaged. Probably the worst case scenario in this example is that you open the top drawer, realize the spoon is not there and you have to look in the next drawer. You may have to ask yourself whether you really need to have this difficult conversation (with its inherent risks) or whether you should just grin and bear it knowing that the potential benefits are limited. Just be careful that you don't fall into the trap of falsely dismissing all difficult conversations by lying to yourself about the actual worst case scenario consequences.

Step two: Honestly ask yourself, "What are the worst things that can happen when I do have this conversation?"
Based on this answer you need to ask:

  1. How likely it is that this worst case scenario will actually take place?
  2. What impact will it have on you if it does?

In the example from the previous article in which Susan was reluctant to have the conversation with her co-worker about cutting back on perfume, what would be the worst case scenario? Well, Susan's co-worker could start to scream at Susan, stomp out of the meeting, quit her job and never speak to Susan again.

Realistically, Susan knows that her co-worker is generally a pretty reasonable person who has demonstrated professionalism in the past. She enjoys her job and has always treated Susan with respect, so this worst case scenario is pretty unlikely. A more realistic worst case scenario may be that Susan's co-worker gets upset with her and asks her why she is telling her this.

Proceeding with this exercise Susan may think to herself, "If she gets really upset with me I can tell her the truth: a patient with severe allergies mentioned to me that this nurse's strong perfume made his symptoms worse." Susan may also mention to her co-worker that the department has a policy against wearing strong scents for this very reason. Susan may even cushion the blow of the conversation by telling her co-worker that she thinks the perfume smells fine, but that it could have a detrimental effect on the people they are caring for. Dealing with this worst case scenario in the safety of her imagination, or by even practicing with a colleague, makes the actual conversation far less daunting for Susan.

One of the biggest stressors of difficult conversation is the way that they can build up in your mind to the point where they become huge monsters that we become more and more daunting to face. With the steps I've outlined, you can face these difficult conversations with the confidence that they will probably be much simpler than the worst case scenario you've prepared yourself for.

Jerry Causier is the president of Maralo Solutions, a leadership consulting company that specializes in helping social and health care organizations provide a higher level of performance to the communities they serve. He has a Masters Degree in Leadership and Training, specializing in health care from Royal Roads University. Jerry has over 20 years of experience in health care and other organizations in four provinces and internationally. He is also an accomplished marathon runner, triathlete and a former first vice president of Mensa Canada. For more information visit

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