5 tips for difficult conversations

10. December 2021

Like it or not, difficult conversations in the workplace are part of it. How does it happen that you are in a meeting and you quickly find that the other person is not listening carefully or is not open about an opinion other than yours? Conversations are often stressful and emotional. Perhaps you leave the meeting frustrated, upset, or upset. Yes, let’s be honest – we also have emotions in the business world, even when nobody talks about them.

What happens when you have a difficult conversation? Any disagreement or feeling that you have no room for your ideas in the conversation is a threat to your mind. Why? Because our minds naturally identify with opinions, ideas and concepts. When others don’t value your opinion, your mind thinks your self-concept is under threat. This is a perfectly normal dynamic.

For example, when your mind feels like it has to give up an idea that is important to you, this is what happens inside: Since this feels like giving up a small part of your identity, your mind and body go into defensive mode. Your body activates the sympathetic nervous system (the fight or flight system). This natural reaction dates back to when humans still lived in caves and were always in danger of a dangerous animal coming. Nowadays, the triggers for this survival mode are project plans, difficult people, or a message on your smartphone.

The problem is, unfortunately, when your mind intuitively thinks it is a threat, your body is unable to differentiate between a tiger and a text message. How can I know that my body has gone into defense mode? You start sweating, your heart and breathing rates increase, your muscles tense up, and you feel uncomfortable or irritated.

This is completely natural and happens many times a day to everyone. It is important to understand that in this state you lose access to the prefrontal cortex, the area of the brain that is responsible for rational thinking. Neurologically, a kind of lock takes place, which under real survival circumstances ensures that you can run away or fight quickly. Therefore, in difficult conversations, we sometimes say things that we later regret when the rational mind is “back”.

Fortunately, there are ways to change this physical reaction, to deal with the internal processes and thus to create the basis for a successful conversation:


Sharpen your inner awareness

Be aware of what is going on inside you. What thoughts and feelings are there, how does your body feel? This is always the first step when you find yourself in a difficult situation that makes you frustrated, angry, or something similar.

Create internal pauses in breathing

Becoming aware of your breath will help bring your body back from defense mode to relaxation mode. If this is activated, your logical thinking also returns. Feel her breath rush in and out of your nostrils and try to slow it down slightly. This exercise relaxes your nervous system.

Bring movement into the situation

Try to bring about some kind of brief change in the situation, for example by get up and walk around the room, maybe do a few light stretching exercises or just move your fingers secretly under the table. I also recommend keeping your feet firmly on the floor. This helps get out of your head into your body and distract yourself in a positive way. It may also help to pause the conversation by quickly getting a glass of water.

Use a mantra

Internally repeat a phrase or word that has a calming effect on you. Examples of this are: the word “relax”, or the sentences “this is a neutral situation” or “it’s just work”. So-called mantras (the repetition of a word or phrase) help to refocus the mind and break out of patterns and can be said to yourself quietly in any situation.