A 6 step guide for difficult conversations to improve our relationships

A 6 step guide for difficult conversations to improve our relationships

We all need to have difficult conversations more often than we would expect. They are essential for human relations. People are different. Believe me. I have been coaching executives for almost three decades now and I am still surprised at how personalities, family, cultural baggage, and life experiences shape who we are, and although we think we speak the same language and we come from the same planet, we do not. 

One of the exercises I bring to my executive clients is the “How to have a difficult conversation” 6-step guide below. I ask them to draft the script of their following complicated conversation respecting these 6 steps. I learned this template from the book The Instinct to Heal-How To Cure Anxiety and Stress Without Drugs by neuroscientist David Servan. This is how he used to talk to his difficult aunt Esther who required a lot of attention. Because she was older, hard-driving and well-off, her other nieces and nephews treated her passive-aggressively. 

With these six elements, we can give and receive what we need while remaining respectful of our own limits and the needs of others. Maybe in 5 minutes, the conversation can be over, and people can move on. 

1-First name— even if you are too upset to even say it, it opens up the brain of the receiver:


2-An honest gratefulness statement( if you don´t have anything to be grateful for it means this person probably does not even deserve your investment of time)

“You know how much this trip we are taking together means to me and how grateful I am for everything you have done for me.”

3-Facts and examples, not more than 3, so choose well:

“But when you call me three times to say the same thing after we’ve already talked for an hour and agreed on these matters,

4-Talk about how you feel so no one can argue

I feel frustrated. 

5-What do you need to stay in this relationship:

I need to feel that we are a team and that you respect my needs just as I respect yours. 

6-Call to action, SMART, specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and time-bound:

Can we agree now that we won’t go back over the decisions we’ve already made?”

Other Examples: 

“Mark, I am so excited and happy to have you in my life. But when you’re late for a movie date, I feel frustrated because I really like to see the beginning of the film. It’s important for me to see the whole show to be able to enjoy it. Can we agree on arriving on time for our appointments from now on unless there is a pretty good reason for us not to?”

or  “John, you know how much I value our relationship, but when you wait a whole week to call me and tell me what you’re up to, I’m afraid something has happened. I need to be reassured more often that everything is all right. Can we agree on you checking in with me somehow more often just to tell me you’re ok?”

“Mary, you know I love having you on the team. Your ideas always inspire others. But when a document is circulated with spelling mistakes, I feel personally embarrassed. My reputation and the reputation of the whole team are important to me, primarily because we have worked so hard to win respect. Can we agree on no more spelling mistakes from now on?

Dr. Gottman, famous for many bestsellers on the topic of ¨non-violent communication¨ since the 1980s and for his ¨love lab¨ in Washington University, where he interviewed over three thousand couples and with more than 90% accuracy, could say that if a couple was equipped with the communication skills needed to stay together long term. 

¨Can a marriage really be understood in one sitting? Yes, it can, and so can many other seemingly complex situations. What Gottman has done is to show us how.”

—Malcolm Gladwell, Blink

Dr Gottman says that when having a difficult conversation, we should:

– make an objective, specific statement of facts, then talk about how you feel. Refrain from saying emotional words about the “opponent.” 

– replace judgment with an objective statement of facts (the more specific and objective, the better). Instead of “you are doing a poor job,” or “this report isn’t good,” you use “in this report, there are three ideas needed to communicate our message that seem to be missing.”

– avoid the terms “good” and “bad.”

– talk about how “you feel,” then no one can argue. Express the disappointment you had.

– always start with “I,” never “you,” so the person does not feel attacked and you’re never criticizing 

– use passive voice if necessary 

As with everything else in life, the more we practice how to have simple objective difficult conversations, the easier it gets. So instead of running away from these difficult conversations, let’s start facing them. One per week might turn us into authorities on the subject, save essential relationships, and let go of those that need letting go. 

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