Assertiveness and difficult conversations

Please note: the ATL website is no longer being updated and will be taken down soon.

Visit the new NEU website

Health and safety
02 November 2016
How do you approach a difficult conversation? The framework below should give you a head start.

First, consider the following questions:

  • Am I the right person?
  • Is the timing right - the critical moment?
  • Why is it a critical conversation?

With regards to timing, immediately might not be appropriate. However, putting it off for too long and avoiding or delaying the meeting will not improve and may indeed exacerbate the situation under discussion.

After deciding you are the right person and understanding why the conversation is important, try this stepped approach:

  • be aware of yourself and how you are communicating
  • hear what the other person has to say
  • work with the other person to develop positive outcomes, if at all possible.

Having a difficult conversation

Step 1. Consider your:

  • body language
  • tone of voice
  • use of language.

Step 2. Listen and hear:

  • understand the broader context
  • observe behaviours and emotions
  • the need to understand impact and consequences
  • keep things as clear and simple as possible.

Your empathy will be key, i.e your ability to keep an open mind and to see things from others' perspective.

Step 3. Problem solving – working in a positive and collaborative way

Conversations which involve different viewpoints reflect a balance of assertiveness and co-operation as shown in the adapted diagram below (Thomas and Kilmann).

Think about conversations and situations you have experienced and identify specific examples in the four categories above. Think about what happened next and what the outcomes were:

  • with an accommodating approach?
  • with an avoidance approach?
  • with a competitive approach?
  • with a collaborative approach?

Finally, in preparing for a conversation consider these seven principles:

  • be brave and be prepared to get to the real issues
  • be yourself and straightforward
  • be strongly focused
  • be prepared to address really tough issues
  • obey your instincts
  • manage your emotions
  • remember, 'silences can be golden'.

Planning and preparation

  • Understand the real issues accurately
  • Take advice
  • Think about the other person – potential reactions
  • Consider the ideal outcome
  • Practice what you are going to say
  • Allow sufficient time and think about the timing
  • Get the environment/location right

The conversation

  • State the issues clearly and honestly
  • Provide specific examples and evidence if appropriate
  • Be positive and avoid blame

Listen well

  • Focus upon active listening
  • Be open-minded and intuitive
  • Summarise accurately to demonstrate you have been listening and hearing
  • Be self-aware

Consider opportunities

  • Ask open questions
  • Ask – don't tell
  • Weigh up possibilities and options
  • Manage silences
  • Allow the time to you both for thinking and responses
  • Summarise again and agree the way forward

Action planning

  • Check for shared understanding
  • Start with small steps
  • Agree a timetable
  • Consider if any support is needed

For more information see the AMiE publication 'Managing performance through critical conversations'.