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Navigate difficult conversations with empathy during a period of tension

Difficult conversations… You dread them, you postpone them sometimes, but you have to have them at some point. Difficult discussions are part of everyday life, especially in times of crisis.

When tensions are high, it’s easy for a conversation to slide in a direction you didn’t want. You may end up trying to prove that you’re right, rather than listening and trying to understand the situation from another angle. You may find yourself talking too loosely to avoid offending, leading to confusion and passive-aggressive attitudes. You could also make your points hurtfully because you haven’t given yourself the time to refocus.

Because they often involve major issues and are emotionally charged, these discussions could put your trust and influence to the test. But they are also an opportunity to showcase some of your skills such as listening, empathy and openness.

It is possible to transform a difficult conversation into a relationship-building opportunity. Here are some suggestions…

Work on yourself first

Before starting the conversation, ask yourself the following questions:

  • What do you hope to achieve during this conversation? What is the expected result?
  • What are your assumptions about this person’s intentions?
  • Are you more emotional than the situation warrants?
  • How does your attitude influence your perception of the conversation?
  • What are your needs and fears?Do you have any common concerns?
  • How did you contribute to the problem?How did the other person contribute?

After thinking about these issues, it is time to take action.

Start the conversation

Introduce the topic in a neutral way. Do not go directly to solving the problem... The most important thing to keep in mind is creating a safe environment for the other person to be expressive and not defensive.
Make it clear to them that you want to hear their opinion and that you do not intend to lecture them. We don’t want the person to close at the beginning of the conversation.
How to get started?

  • I would like to discuss something that I think will help us work together more effectively.
  • I want to talk about _____ but I would like to get your opinion first.
  • I think we have different views on ____ . Do you have time to talk about it?
  • I would like to see if we can come to a better understanding of _________. I really want to hear your feelings on this and also share my point of view.


Go in with a curious mindset. Cultivate an attitude of discovery and curiosity. Imagine that you know nothing and try to learn as much as possible about your interlocutor and his point of view. Ask open-ended questions to understand the situation from all perspectives. Learn your speaker’s priorities and don’t rush to the part of the conversation where you can talk.


  • What do you think?
  • Your behaviour towards your colleagues has changed.What’s going on?
  • I wonder what you think about what happened.Do you want to share?


Listening helps to calm any conflict or difficult conversation. When we are influenced by negative emotions, we tend to stop listening. But any conversation in which both parties listen to each other can streamline the flow of communication.

Let the speaker speak until he is finished. Do not interrupt, except to validate understanding. Try to learn as much as possible in this phase of the conversation. Resist the urge to correct or defend yourself. Let them finish speaking first. Wait your turn.

Listening to each other is not so easy. Let them speak, without interrupting. To fully understand their point of view, ask open-ended questions, put yourself in their place, invite them to summarize your exchanges and rephrase their words by asking them for their assent. You will avoid the dialogue of the deaf and the empathy you show will allow you to find a lasting, shared and satisfactory solution for both parties.


Recognition means that you have heard and understood what the other person is communicating. Recognition can be difficult if we associate it with being in agreement. Signal that you recognize (or at least are trying to) their point of view, even if you don’t necessarily agree.

Empathize - Remember that you don’t have to agree with what the other person is saying. You just acknowledge that you understand what they said. Saying "it seems really important to you", does not mean that you agree with the interlocutor’s decision.

Paraphrase - This does not mean to reproduce verbatim what the person has communicated. Instead, try to summarize in fewer words what they have shared, including the emotion they expressed. Paraphrase what the person has said and ask them to validate your understanding.

Be assertive

When you feel that your interlocutor has finished expressing their opinion on the subject, it is your turn. Clarify your position without minimizing theirs. Remember to turn “you” statements into “I” statements. You are the expert on your own feelings. You are not the expert on their feelings, intentions or lives. Share what you know about yourself, such as the impact of the other person’s behaviour or situation.

Example: Turn “you are insulting” into “I feel hurt”.

Take a break if necessary

If you feel that emotions are increasing, you can take a break!

Example: “I just heard a lot of things that surprised me, I would like a little time to sit down and calm down a bit. Do you mind if we take a break and come back in half an hour (or tomorrow)?”

Problem solving

Now that you have both had your turn, you are ready to work together to find solutions to improve the situation. Ask the other person for advice and take the time to recognize what you like in their suggestions. When making suggestions, keep their priorities in mind and try to take advantage of their proposals.

Ask them what they think might work. No matter what they say, find something you like within it and build on it. If the conversation becomes contradictory, return to the investigation. Asking the other person’s point of view usually creates security and encourages them to engage.

This is to assess the feasibility of the options, to discuss. Sometimes that leads to looking for other options because the first one is not realistic. It is necessary to remain calm, in active listening mode, and to pay attention to the other to be sure that they are also in active listening mode. Then agree on a solution and decide together on a sensible next step. Give yourself a time to review the situation together. Follow up and document as required.

In conclusion…

Even if you can’t dictate the outcome of a difficult conversation, you can control how you navigate the process. When we are stressed, we are not always at our best. But, like any acquired skill, you can prepare yourself for a stressful situation and be ready to present yourself as you carefully planned.

Good luck!

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