Difficult conversations are an inevitable part of the workplace however many of us have had bad experiences with these kinds of conversations in the past.

“The key is to learn how to handle them in a way that produces a better outcome,” says Paula Quinsee, relationship expert and author.


Research on dialogue at work, however, suggests that the concept has become trivialised.

Many organizations boast of having an “open” environment where members are encouraged to participate in dialogue, but we rarely see businesses using dialogue in a transformational way to dissolve long-standing stereotypes, unite people in a common purpose, inspire fresh thinking and amplify creativity. It’s a missing skill.

So why exactly are tough dialogues so rare?

The truth is, dialogue is interpersonally tough and unfamiliar – only a handful of people do it well. Some personalities will find opening up to other viewpoints challenging and may struggle with making observations, not demands. Some will find the act of synthesizing conflicting opinions psychologically disconcerting. And others will resist giving critical feedback.

Against this backdrop, it is easy to see how organizations might pay lip service to dialogue without really creating the conditions for it to work effectively. Quinsee offers some tips on how to foster respectful, mutual dialogue in the workplace.

Do this by applying S.M.A.R.T principles to our relationships:

S – Solution Orientated

Problem-focused thinking does not help us at all to solve difficult situations, which is especially necessary in times where one must find quick solutions to an upcoming problem. Furthermore, the problem-focused approach can have negative effects on one’s motivation.

The very first step to approach problems with solution-focused thinking is to avoid questions that mainly focus on the reason or the problem in general.

Instead, aim to find a win-win for your challenges and obstacles.


M- Mindful

Using mindfulness during difficult conversations gives us the opportunity to override our body’s natural responses so we can be calmer and more focused. This state of heightened consciousness allows us to become more aware of what is causing our negative thoughts and emotions.

Being aware of this negativity enables us to self-regulate to a more productive state and have a better conversation. Being mindful of your thoughts, actions and behaviours are essential.

A- Accountable

To hold oneself accountable means to own your feelings while taking responsibility for your contribution to the relationship – good and bad. Accountability is what helps us implement the solutions.

It’s also important to remember that you are equally accountable for keeping your relationship healthy.

R- Respectful

Respect the professionalism of other participants in the conversation as well as the task at hand. Honour your professional reputation too, as your conduct in difficult conversations will have an impact on your image in other scenarios.

If the issue you’re raising is one of professional conduct, it becomes especially important to maintain your own professionalism during the conversation. Avoid any unprofessional language, and give the benefit of the doubt whenever possible. Even if you feel disrespected, it can’t be a license to be disrespectful – whether the person in question is present or not.

Also, remember you will most likely need to continue working together after this conversation so make sure you also show respect towards your working relationship.


T – Time

Taking the time to know our colleagues on a human level helps prepare the scene for tough dialogue. We should take time out to have a chat with colleagues. The conversation doesn’t have to be all about mental health – it can be as simple as asking how they are, and really listen to the answer.

Tough dialogue topics could centre on issues such as racism, gender imbalance, toxic teams, bullying or ageism. “There are always sensitive conversations that embody these topics and as a result are often ignored, and in most cases, the expertise to successfully deal with such ‘tough’ issues does not necessarily reside within the organisation”, adds Quinsee.


Paula Quinsee: relationship expert, Tedx speaker and author is a certified Imago Relationship Therapy Educator, Professional Facilitator and NLP Life Coach.

As a Relationship Expert, she teaches individuals and companies tools and skills to immediately and positively enhance the quality of their personal and organisational relationships.

[Adapted from press release.]