How to Start a Difficult Discussion Off Right

Jan 24, 2019

By David Lee

The way you begin a difficult discussion can determine its fate. If you immediately trigger defensiveness or combativeness in the other, the chances of a productive outcome drop to nearly zero. If you know how to bring up difficult issues in ways that set the other person at ease, you increase the odds that he or she will be willing and able to hear your point of view and talk about his or hers honestly and nondefensively. That is what the “declaration followed by invitation” format is designed to do.

As the name implies, there are two parts to this language pattern: The declaration, where you succinctly state the issue, and the invitation, where you invite the person to share his or her perspective.

The Declaration

In the declaration phase you “declare” what you want to discuss. The declaration provides a context for your remarks, so they don’t appear to come out of the blue (e.g. “Freida… do you ever wonder what people think about you?”). You obviously want to avoid catching a person off guard as that usually triggers defensiveness.

Here’s an example of a good declaration: “Claire, I want to talk with you about some concerns I have about how you interact with the rest of the team. I’d like to get your perspective on a few interactions that have come to my attention, because I know there are always two sides to everything. What I’d like to do is run through each one at a time and get your perspective, and then go from there.”

Tips on how to make the declaration work:

  1. Use only enough words to capture the issue. Don’t belabor it. If you go on and on, you’ll come across as lecturing or scolding, two guaranteed ways to trigger defensiveness.
  2. Be as concrete and specific as possible. Avoid speaking only in vague generalities or evaluative terms. Here’s an example of concreteness: “Hazel, I want to talk with you about being more gracious when others need you to help out. Here’s what I mean. You know yesterday, when Sally asked if you could help out and you rolled your eyes and said ‘you again?'”
  3. Speak the truth, without blame or judgment. Unless it’s a performance problem or some other issue that, by nature, has to include an evaluative component, try to keep your remarks descriptive and nonjudgmental. Describe what is going on and it’s effect, without going into judgments about the other person. Instead of saying “Sally, I found four typos on this flyer after you proofed it. I can’t understand how you could have missed them,” you might say “Sally, I’m concerned about the fact that I found four typos on this flyer after you proofed it. At the risk of stating the obvious… if I hadn’t checked it before sending it out to the printers, we would have been left with 10,000 brochures we couldn’t use.”
  4. Try to express your displeasure without spicing up your language with exaggerations or inflammatory words. For instance, in the last example, notice that it says “we would have been left with 10,000 brochures we couldn’t use” instead of a phrase like “stuck with 10,000 useless brochures.” Although the latter statement is equally true, it obviously comes across as more judgmental and even scolding, which will likely trigger defensiveness.
  5. Try to talk about the problem as a separate entity. If you can talk about the problem as a separate entity, rather than in a “you did this” way, you decrease the chances the person will get defensive. For example, “I’m really concerned about the report not being done on time and would like to hear what happened so that can be avoided in the future” versus “I’m upset that you were late in getting the report to me.”

The Invitation

After you briefly state your concern and/or desired outcome, the next step is to invite the person to speak.

  1. Demonstrate sincere interest through voice tone and body language. Make sure neither are neither combative or accusatory.
  2. Make it easier for the person to speak openly and honestly. If you believe the person might be reluctant to share his perspective or feelings with you because of the power differential, because he might be embarrassed or because he's just uncomfortable talking about that issue, you can use two techniques to make it easier for him to do so. These are “Mention the Unmentionable” and “The Multiple Choice Opener.”
  3. Mention the Unmentionable. If there’s an issue that you suspect is on his mind, and you believe he is reluctant to bring it up—for whatever reason—you can bring it up. Doing this communicates that it’s OK to talk about the issue. This is especially useful in situations where you are trying to get someone who has less power than you to open up. Here are some examples:
    “I’m wondering if you feel  I was really off base in my approach to that.”
    “Are you feeling that what I’m asking for is unreasonable?”
    “Did you feel I was too heavy handed in the way I handled that?”
  4. Use The “Multiple Choice Opener.”  You give the person even more freedom to speak their truth when you use the Multiple Choice Opener. With this language pattern, you mention two or more possible perspectives or underlying issues that might be in play. For instance: “Brenda, I want to check in about why that project didn’t get done on time. Was it because I wasn’t clear in what I wanted, or maybe because I didn’t make it clear that it was a priority. Or was it something else?”
  5. By providing alternatives, you’re communicating several important messages. First, because you’re mentioning the unmentionable, it communicates that it’s OK to talk honestly about what’s going on. Second, it shows that you’ve thought about the issue, which shows you care about the person. Third, it communicates that you’re not wedded to a particular interpretation or explanation. This open-endedness shows the person that you’re not trying to control the conversation or force her to agree to something that isn’t true from her perspective. When the Multiple Choice Opener ends in a “… or something else?” it makes this language pattern even more permissive and open ended.
  6. Recognize you can acknowledge without agreeing. Keep in mind that when you offer possible perspectives or issues in Mentioning the Unmentionable and the Multiple Choice Opener, you are not saying they are true, you are simply letting the other person know that, if he is feeling this way, it’s OK to talk about it. So for instance, if you say “Are you feeling that what I’m asking for is unreasonable?”, it doesn’t mean that if the person says “yes” that your response is “OK, I’ll never ask that again.” It means that if he sees it that way, you want to hear his point of view and discuss it. You might end up seeing it his way or you might not.
  7. Ask questions with care. If you phrase your invitation in the form of a question, make sure your voice tone is as low-key as possible, and not accusatory. Avoid “Why” questions if possible as people tend to associate them with being a child, when “Why did you do that?” really meant “You did something wrong!”

The time, study and effort you put into increasing your skill at bringing up difficult issues will pay off handsomely in terms of less conflict and more productive relationships. There is obviously a lot more to making a difficult discussion work than the opening, but the opening is perhaps the most important part of the conversation to be skillful at, as it sets the tone and the trajectory.

About the About(s)

David Lee is the founder of and an internationally recognized authority on optimizing employee performance.  He is the author of Managing Employee Stress and Safety as well as dozens of articles.