Jerry Causier

Article Summary:

Examine what makes one conversation seem more difficult to tackle than another.

What is a difficult conversation?

Chances are high if you work with people on a relatively consistent basis you've faced the prospect of having conversations you did not look forward to. The definition of what constitutes a difficult conversation is surprisingly diverse.

In my 20 years working as a leader in health care, I have worked with an array of people who had varied ideas about what was a "difficult conversation." For example, I worked with a nurse leader (let's call her Susan) who had no problem having a supportive and empathetic discussion with a mother to inform her that her child had been killed in a car accident. This same individual was literally sick to her stomach with discomfort at the prospect of having to inform one of her co-workers that the perfume she was wearing was too strong and that she needed to use less scent at work.

What made the difference to Susan? Most people would view the first of these two conversations as something to avoid at all costs and the second as a ten second conversation that required virtually no thought or anxiety at all. As you may not have expected, what makes conversations difficult is not the content of the interaction but our own feelings, history and emotional investment in the conversation. Not surprisingly then, the context of the conversations, the relationship we have with those with whom we will be speaking, and our perception of how these factors could change our relationships are far more important than the words we use when having the conversation.

In the example above, Susan was an extremely confident, caring and compassionate person. When it came time to have a dreadful conversation with the mother of a recently killed child, she drew on her skills and did a fantastic job with this seemingly difficult conversation. Susan knew that she had the skills to conduct this conversation in the best way possible, and was actually glad it was her that was having this interaction with a grieving parent and not someone else who would be less comfortable. She was able to use her skills as a communicator to compassionately deliver a life altering message to a total stranger about a tragedy that would change the mother's life forever. As empathetic as Susan was, the fact that she was delivering the tragic news to a stranger probably made the conversation easier. As cold as it sounds, Susan knew that she probably wouldn't be talking to the mother again; their temporary relationship would culminate in this one terrible interaction. A week later they could pass each other in the street and conceivably not recognize each other.

Part of the reason for the difficulty Susan had with the prospect of the second conversation was that she didn't know how her co-worker would react. This was particularly frightening to Susan because she knew that she spent 12 hours a day, several days a week with her co-worker. Obviously, Susan felt a lot of pressure to make sure that this seemingly innocuous conversation went well and that major damage was not done to the relationship she had with her co-worker.

Clearly, what constitutes a difficult conversation is different for everyone and tied more to an individual's personal value system and relationships then to the actual content of the conversation.

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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