Beginning a Hard Conversation

Jul 04, 2018

If you haven’t read the first two posts about difficult conversations, you might want to go back and read them. Then you’ll be able to better follow these steps for an honest, forthright conversation that tackles conflict in your school or personal life. Part I, Part II.

We’ve been talking about how to tackle difficult issues that arise at work through a conversation process identified in the book, Fierce Conversations, Achieving Success at Work and in Life, One Conversation at a Time by Susan Scott.

Now that we’ve discussed how to get to the heart of the problem by considering all the different perspectives surrounding a problem or conflict, and identified what you’d like to address in your conversation – it’s time to get this party started!

Let’s start the conversation.

You will open with a statement that identifies the problem, implications of the problem, your role in it, your desired outcome and suggestions for moving forward – all in about one minute!

You’ve done the groundwork already so let’s go through the specifics of what to say.


To prepare an issue for discussion, you’ll need to determine:

  1. The issue
  2. It’s significance
  3. Your ideal outcome
  4. Relevant background information
  5. What you’ve done up to this point
  6. The help you want from the person or group

Let’s look at each step separately.

The issue.  As you state the issue, be very concise. Get to the heart of the problem with as few sentences as possible (1 or 2 sentences) Describe how the concern or problem is becoming more troublesome.

We have a problem with gossip at our school. This creates division between staff, hurt feelings and anger, and a climate of negativity in our school. At first it was just an occasional occurrence, what you’d consider normal, but seems like it’s gotten out of hand lately.

It’s significance. Describe what’s at stake – how the issue affects people, finances, services, customers, families, the future, and other relevant factors unique to the problem.

When staff members are hurt and angry, it shows in their work with children and parents. Children pick up on our negative emotions. If the problem continues, it could affect our enrollment, which could affect our bottom line and I might have to let people go. I’m also concerned that we could begin to lose staff members because of this negative atmosphere and I’d have to hire new staff, which is difficult and time consuming. It just feels bad and makes people tense and unhappy.

Your ideal outcome. What specific results do you want?

I want the gossiping and back-stabbing to stop. I want to see cooperative, collaborative and respectful relationships between all of our staff.

Relevant background information. Here’s where you summarize how, when, why and where the issue started. You’ll list the key players, what forces are at work, and describe the current status of the issue.

I’ve contributed to the problem by leaving my door open when discussing staff problems and it’s been overheard. I should have invited those involved into the conversation rather than venting about the problem. And my words should not have been repeated to other staff members. While not every person has been involved, every person has been touched by the negative talk and feelings of being treated unfairly. I understand that some are ready to quit because they’re so unhappy about this.

What you have done up to this point. What have you done so far? What options are you considering?

I have spoken to several people to figure out how and why we’re having this problem. I appreciate their input and would like more from others. I’m considering several ways of opening channels of communication between staff and I'm creating guidelines for management in policies around confidentiality and professionalism.

The help you want from the person or group.  Think about what result you want from the group. For example, alternative solutions, identification of consequences, where to find more information and critique of current practices and policies.

I want to come to a place where everyone is kind and respectful to each other. If they have a conflict, I want them to try to resolve it on their own before coming to me for help. I want my office staff to respect my privacy and keep matters confidential. I want to change my own habits of venting to my co-workers when I get frustrated with staff members and keep those conversations for another time and place, with someone who is not involved at the school. I need to talk about my feelings but I need to be professional and respectful about what I say. I want to model how I want my staff to approach problems and conflict.


Thinking through these steps will give you the words to say in a 60-second statement that will open the door to a conversation that invites interaction, understanding and resolution.

Your statement should include:

  1. The issue
  2. A specific example that illustrates the behavior or situation
  3. Your emotions about the issue
  4. What’s at stake
  5. Your contribution to the issue
  6. Your wish to resolve the problem

A few thoughts about your opening statement…insure that your tone of voice and facial expressions communicate openness, kindness and a positive attitude. Practice the statement until you can say it this way! Ask a trusted friend to listen to you and let you practice it over and over until you feel comfortable. Remember that you are inviting an interactive, productive conversation where everyone feels heard, respected and understood.

Here’s an example of an opening statement. See if you can identify the different parts.

We have a problem with gossip at our school. Last week I walked into the staff room and several teachers were repeating what they had heard me saying in my office that morning. Another day I observed a cluster of teachers talking angrily on the playground while another teacher was left to watch all the kids on her own. I am upset that you’re not giving children your full attention and acting unprofessionally by talking about each other and creating divisions at work. I’m afraid that if this continues we’ll lose teachers or even families, because it creates a negative feel in our school. I realize that I’ve contributed to the problem by making unconstructive comments about people that were overheard and I have apologized to those people. I also know that I need to communicate better our policies around confidentiality and professional conduct at school. I want to work together to create a place where staff feel respected, appreciated and supported, as well as responsible for their own behavior and professionalism on the job.

The opening statement is followed by an invitation for responses and interaction. When you invite others to respond to what you've said, give it some time! You may have just dropped a bombshell, and folks will need a moment to gather their thoughts. Let silence do the work of evoking genuine responses.

As you talk it over, paraphrase what you hear others say and make sure you’ve got it clear. Dig for understanding – don’t be satisfied with surface level responses. Make sure they know that you fully understand and acknowledge their position and feelings. 

Conclude the conversation with a summary of what you’ve learned, where you are now. Ask, "Is there’s anything being left unsaid that needs to be said?" What is needed for resolution? How will you move forward now, given your new understanding?

Then agree on how you’ll hold the other responsible for following through on your plan to resolve the issue. This could be a weekly or bi-weekly meeting, a text exchange or a simple question to check-in on a regular basis.

Click here for a cheat sheet for planning your conversation starter!

Stay connected with news and updates!

Join our mailing list to receive the latest news and updates from our team.
Don't worry, your information will not be shared.

We hate SPAM. We will never sell your information, for any reason.