One of the hardest things for people is to have conversations that they know the other party won’t be happy to listen to. The purpose can range from providing feedback for improvement, having to reject an idea, or identifying a mistake the other party made. In the world of leaders, difficult conversations are part of the job description, and there is no shortage of situations that require the skills to handle these conversations effectively. As a leader, it’s never a good idea to avoid these conversations. If you do, you’ll have what author George Kohlrieser calls in his book host at the table, a fish under the table. He says that when you leave a fish under the table, it starts to rot and smell, which is exactly what happens when problems aren’t identified and resolved as they arise. Problems never go away; they just keep getting bigger and bigger until the situation finally blows up.

Leaders sometimes make the mistake of thinking that avoiding conflict helps them to like and win the acceptance of their followers. It’s not dealing with conflict that makes or breaks a relationship, but how you approach these difficult conversations. When leaders can’t have difficult conversations with others, they create an environment of mistrust. Followers don’t know where they stand and may question the leader’s honesty. More importantly, they may question the leader’s willingness to defend them when necessary.

I once worked for a leader who, despite his high position, had a real conflict problem. He wanted to be liked by everyone and had his second in command do all the “dirty work”. He thought this made him more likeable, but he didn’t realize that his team had lost respect for him and felt they couldn’t count on him to make the tough decisions needed to take the organization to the next level. He was unable to take the next step in the organization due to his resistance to the conflict.

It’s natural to feel uncomfortable with conflict, but as a leader it’s a necessary part of moving your organization and those you lead forward.

Tips for having those difficult conversations:

  • Realize that leadership is not a popularity contest. You CANNOT please everyone and if you try, you will end up losing everyone’s respect. When you stand up for what you believe in, you may lose the popularity vote to some, but most will respect you.
  • Clearly state your expectations before problems arise. When expectations are clearly communicated, people don’t have to guess what is expected of them. When they choose to deviate from what is required of them, it is easier for you to bring up how they are not meeting expectations.
  • Leave your emotions at the door. No matter what has happened in the past or what you personally think of the person, you must be objective. Address the problem, not the person. If you need to wait until the next day, please do so.
  • do it in private. Never have difficult conversations in front of others. Set a time and date, or if you can’t wait, go somewhere private and discuss the problem.
  • Understand that human nature is to be defensive.. Our brain is programmed to be in defensive mode at any sign of threat. Anytime you bring someone into your office, they automatically go into defensive mode, so do whatever you can to alleviate this. Most importantly, no matter what, don’t take things personally and don’t get defensive.
  • Map the conversation. Take at least a few minutes to replay the conversation. Think of ways that you can approach the problem in a non-threatening way. People respond negatively when they feel accused, misunderstood, or attacked, so avoid doing this even when it’s clear they’re at fault. Try to identify what can trigger a negative response and try to avoid it. Put yourself in that person’s shoes. What would make you react negatively? What would make you take the feedback positively? This helps you to be in control of your emotions no matter what the outcome. Most of the time, it’s usually worse in our head than when you’re having the conversation. Preparing for the worst keeps you calm because you know you are prepared to respond.

Remember that the more you are willing to have these conversations, the better you will be at solving problems and preserving relationships.


Kohlrieser, G. (2006). Lodging at the Table. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

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