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Can we talk? Exploring all the feels: A guide to difficult conversations at work

Managing difficult conversations is a critical skill for leaders, yet it's often fraught with challenges. In this series of posts, we'll explore some of the most significant frustrations, along with tips and frameworks for how to work through them with empathy and intention.


This week, we'll delve into exploring the emotions that often come up before, during, and after challenging conversations. Whether it's addressing performance issues, negotiating conflicting agendas, or managing team dynamics, these conversations often involve traversing a minefield of fears, frustrations, aspirations, and interpersonal tensions, all of which can feel overwhelming. To successfully navigate these conversations, it takes a delicate balance of empathy, tact, and assertiveness.


Have you had to provide critical feedback to someone who thought they were doing a great job? Have you had to collaborate with a partner or stakeholder whose approach or expectations weren't aligned with yours? Have you had to help members of your team navigate interpersonal conflict? You probably had a number of internal emotions and feelings swirling inside you that affected how you showed up, how the conversation progressed, and how you felt afterwards. On top of that, the other person or people in the conversation were also navigating a similar vortex of their own emotions and feelings, too.


In this guide, we explore the realm of emotions, offering a comprehensive toolkit to take on difficult conversations with confidence. By leveraging your compassion and preparing effectively, you can reframe the conversation to influence a more positive outcome. At the end of this article, you'll be equipped with practical strategies to foster constructive dialogue, build trust, and drive positive change, no matter how difficult the conversation.


Eggs with faces drawn on them in a carton depicting various emotions with the words, "Emotions are our physiological responses, but feelings are the narrative that our brains make up often from outdated or inaccurate beliefs."

Emotions versus feelings


First, let's break down the difference between emotions and feelings. Emotions are physiological responses triggered by external stimuli, while feelings are the subjective interpretations of these emotional experiences. Emotions are often felt physically in the body well before a person starts to name what they are experiencing. The hot flush that creeps over your face, the sweaty palms, the dilated pupils, the gnawing in your gut, those are your emotions creating physical responses as a result of something external to you.


Feelings are how we label those emotional experiences. Some people struggle to name what they are feeling. Others can name their feelings, but many people often have very different names for the same physical sensations. For example, some people may express that the above list of physical responses feels like excitement, maybe because they're hoping to hear something good about the promotion they want. For other people, those physical responses feel like fear, maybe because they're expecting to get critical feedback. And for some, those physical responses feel like anger, maybe because they're already telling themselves a story about how they're not going to get the promotion they feel is overdue.


Because emotions are the physiological responses and the feelings are the narrative that our brains make up, often from outdated or inaccurate beliefs, there is a space in between where we can begin to leverage emotional intelligence to help influence the feelings that arise as a result of the conversation. The more adept you get at this skill as a leader, the more resilient you and your teams become and the better you all handle challenging situations together.


Managing emotions during difficult conversations


Experiencing emotions is part of the human condition, but we have agency about how we feel and how we act. Difficult conversations often evoke strong feelings from all parties involved. Anger, defensiveness, or sadness are commonly felt when folks perceive they're being criticized, are in disagreement, or feel frustrated. Having these feelings isn't a problem, but when they hinder communication by clouding judgment and escalating tensions, they can derail the conversation. Here's a framework you can use to manage your own feelings and influence other's feelings during those difficult conversations:


Preparation and Planning

  • Self-awareness: Before the conversation reflect on your own emotional state and triggers. Consider how your emotions may impact the interaction and plan strategies to manage them effectively.

  • Understanding the context: Think about the context of the conversation and anticipate potential emotional triggers for yourself and the other party. Mentally prepare for sensitive or challenging topics.


Establishing Rapport and Trust

  • Empathy and active listening: Approach the conversation with empathy and a genuine desire to understand the other person's perspective. Practice active listening to demonstrate that their feelings are being heard and acknowledged.

  • Validation: Validate the other person's emotions by acknowledging and empathizing with their feelings, even if you don't agree with their perspective. Avoid dismissing or trivializing their emotions and feelings.


Managing Emotions in the Moment

  • Stay calm and present: Maintain your composure and stay present in the moment, even if the conversation becomes charged. Take deep breaths and ground yourself so you can remain focused on the conversation.

  • Pause and reflect: If emotions begin to escalate, take a pause, and collect your thoughts and emotions. Use this time to reflect on your own reactions and consider how best to proceed.


Addressing Emotions Directly

  • Naming emotions: If things are escalating, articulate your feelings by explicitly naming them and encourage the other person to do the same. This can help clarify feelings and facilitate a more productive discussion.

  • Exploring underlying causes: Probe beneath the surface to understand the underlying causes of the other person's emotions. Ask open-ended questions to uncover their concerns, fears, or frustrations.


Responding with Empathy and Validation

  • Reflective listening: Paraphrase and reflect back the other person's emotions and feelings to show that you understand and empathize with their perspective. Use phrases like "It sounds like you're feeling..." to validate their emotions.

  • Normalize emotions: Normalize the other person's emotions and reassure them that it's okay to feel the way they do. Let them know that you appreciate their honesty.


Problem-solving and Moving Forward

  • Collaborative problem-solving: Once emotions have been acknowledged and validated, shift the focus towards problem-solving and finding solutions collaboratively. Brainstorm ideas together and explore ways to address the underlying issues causing emotional distress.

  • Setting boundaries: If emotions continue to escalate or become disruptive, set boundaries to ensure that the conversation remains constructive and respectful. Reiterate the importance of maintaining a productive dialogue and focus on finding solutions.


Follow-up and Support

  • Follow-up conversation: After the initial conversation, follow up with the other person to check in on their emotional state and see how they're doing. Reaffirm your commitment to them, any support required, and the topic of discussion.

  • Offering resources: If you're in the person's management chain, provide resources and support to help the other person manage their emotions and navigate challenging situations. This could include recommending employee assistance programs, providing self-help resources, or offering additional support from HR or management.


Emotional intelligence is a fundamental skill for effective leadership and interpersonal communication. By honing our ability as leaders to recognize, understand, and manage our own emotions, we can foster more meaningful connections, resolve conflicts constructively, and drive positive outcomes. Next week's post will dive into conflict resolution during challenging conversations, so check back for more information and tactical strategies.


With that, I invite you to roll up your sleeves and build workplaces founded on empathy, emotional intelligence, and showing each other respect. Because when we do that, we're not just making difficult conversations easier – we're creating a workplace where we all shine brighter, innovate better, and succeed together.


As a leadership coach, I partner with leaders and teams to navigate challenges together for successful outcomes. Reach out today to set up a complimentary consultation!



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