Handle Difficult Conversations with Less Stress

By Amy Rebecca Gay, PhD, CPCC
The Mediation Group

Kate was weaving through traffic to get to work when she realized her iron grip on the steering wheel.

Her shoulders felt tense and she hadn’t slept well. Her uneaten breakfast sat on the passenger’s seat, waiting for her stomach to settle. It was not even 8 am and her whole body felt stressed.

The first thing on her agenda was a meeting with the Director of Sales to talk about the new sales force software roll out. Sure, there had been some hiccups, but it had gone well. Any new software implementation requires tweaks and re-works, but all the Director of Sales could see were complaints. Focusing narrowly on a few sales’ reps’ complaints risked losing sight of the overall picture and what they were trying to accomplish. She hoped she could talk him down and persuade him to see what was going well and continue with the plan. But first, she needed to get a grip on the knot at the base of her throat if she was going to speak clearly.

Let’s face it. We all have difficult and stressful conversations. Our bodies tell us when they’re coming. Kate was certainly feeling the physiological symptoms of a stressful conversation. The concerns that drive these feelings include having had the same conversation three times and having it not go well, or worrying about the impact on your relationship, that you’ll appear weak or ignorant or that nothing will change. We also know that we pay a similar price if we avoid the conversations, so we feel stuck.

The reality is that our most difficult conversations are often the most strategically important. So how can you increase the likelihood that they go well and continue to build your ability to discuss what matters most? The trick is not to focus on what you are going to say, but on what you are thinking and feeling. What’s in our heads and hearts drives our words. And if we can get our head and heart in a constructive place, we are much better positioned to have these conversations with skill.

Three assumptions get us into the most trouble: we are right and they are wrong, the whole thing is their fault and they got of bed this morning intending to make my life difficult. Kate’s perspective might sound something like this, “The software implementation has been a huge success and the Director of Sales has allowed a small handful of nit-picky, disgruntled sales agents to unreasonably magnify the problems so that he can avoid taking responsibility for the ways he didn’t prepare his people for the changes. He wants me to take the fall.” With her iron grip on the steering wheel she rehearses what she’ll say, his retort and then her come-back. She is reinforcing her perspective, increasing her stress, and setting up a confrontation.

Kate can increase the likelihood of having a productive and less stressful conversation by taking a step back and getting curious about what’s going on from the Director of Sales’ perspective. What challenges does he see? What have his sales agents told him? What does that say to him? What would he like to accomplish going forward? What structures and processes in the organization have contributed to the bumps? Questions begin a dialogue, which increases your understanding, builds rapport and better positions you to move forward

When our stress is high, it feels daunting – if not impossible – to get curious about the jerk standing in our way. But curiosity is like a muscle. The more you use it, the stronger it gets. On Wednesday, July 18  during the MITX INFLUENCEHER conference, attendees learned practical, hands-on tools to apply to their own difficult conversations so that they can have those mission-critical conversations better and with less stress.

Amy Rebecca Gay, PhD, CPCC is a mediator, coach and consultant specializing in leadership development, conflict resolution and communication. She works with people and organizations that want to boost team performance, negotiate effectively, manage conflict productively and say no while building relationships.


With over 20 years of experience, Amy has designed and delivered trainings, facilitation and conflict resolution processes for small and large groups, coached individuals, and mediated a variety of conflicts.

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