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Communicating in Difficult Situations

Ivan Jakab, Lead Developer

Most people want to avoid conflict and potentially stressful situations – this is human nature. People often find it easier to avoid communicating something that they think is going to be controversial or bad, putting off the communication and letting the situation fester. However, constantly putting off difficult communication situations often leads to feelings of frustration, guilt, annoyance with oneself, anger, a reduction in self-confidence and, ultimately, more stress and anxiety.

By following some simple guidelines and by using some well-tuned communication skills, communicating in difficult situations becomes easier.

Types of Difficult Conversations

Planned conversations

Planned conversations occur when the subject has been given thought, they are planned because the time, place and other circumstances have been arranged or are chosen for a reason.

Unplanned difficult conversations

Unplanned difficult conversations take place on the spur of the moment; these are often fueled by anger which can, in extreme cases, lead to aggression.

Often, after an unplanned difficult conversation we feel a surge of emotion – regret or shame if things didn't go too well, or a boost to our self-esteem and confidence if they did.

Factors That Make Communication Seem Difficult


People tend to look at emotions as being positive or negative. Happiness is positive and therefore sadness must be negative; calmness is positive, whereas stress and anxiety are negative. Emotions are, however, a natural response to situations that we find ourselves in, and the only time that we need to be concerned is when we consistently feel emotions inappropriate to our current situation. Emotions are therefore not positive or negative but appropriate or inappropriate.

When faced with unexpected news, we may find ourselves becoming upset, frustrated, angry – or perhaps very happy and excited. It is helpful to recognize how we react to things emotionally and to think of different ways in which emotions can be controlled if necessary. Similarly, if we need to communicate information which may have an emotional effect on another person, it is helpful to anticipate what that effect might be and to tailor what we say or write accordingly.


Often difficult conversations are about some sort of change. It is important to remember that change is inevitable.

Different people handle change in different ways. If possible, it is beneficial to think about the positive side of the change and the potential opportunities that it may bring. It is better for an individual’s well-being if they are able to embrace change as positively as possible, thus helping to minimize stress and anxiety.

Dealing with Difficult Conversations

There has to be a balance between communicating something difficult and being as sensitive as possible to those concerned.

The skillset required to do this may seem somewhat contradictory as you may need to be both firm and gentle in your approach.

Gather Information

Make sure you have your facts straight before you begin, know what you are going to say and why you are going to say it. Try to anticipate any questions or concerns others may have and think carefully about how you will answer questions.

Be Assertive

Once you are sure that something needs to be communicated then do so in an assertive way. Do not find yourself backing down or changing your mind mid-conversation unless of course there is very good reason to do so.

Be Emphatic

Put yourself in the other person’s shoes and think about how they will feel about what you are telling them; how would you feel if the roles were reversed? Give others time to ask questions and make comments.

Be Prepared to Negotiate

A difficult situation often requires a certain amount of negotiation, be prepared for this. When negotiating, aim for a win-win outcome – that is, some way in which all parties can benefit.

Use Appropriate Verbal and Non-Verbal Language

Speak clearly avoiding any jargon that other parties may not understand, give eye contact and try to sit or stand in a relaxed way. Do not use confrontational language or body language.


When stressed we tend to listen less well, try to relax and listen carefully to the views, opinions, and feelings of the other person/people. Use clarification and reflection techniques to offer feedback and demonstrate that you were listening.

Stay Calm and Focused

Communication becomes easier when we are calm, take some deep breaths and try to maintain an air of calmness, others are more likely to remain calm if you do.  Keep focused on what you want to say, don’t deviate or get distracted from the reason that you are communicating.

Emotions and changes can make communication difficult, no matter whether the communication is planned or unplanned. Being assertive, emphatic, well-prepared and open for negotiation are small tips that can help you deal with a difficult conversation. Furthermore, it is very important to listen, use appropriate verbal and non-verbal language, as well as to stay calm and focused.

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