How to Have Difficult Conversations (Five on Friday)

As a minister, I am often put in the position of having to have difficult conversations with people. A difficult conversation is anything you find it hard to talk about. Since these kinds of conversations are hard and usually involve some level of conflict, most people would rather avoid having difficult conversations.

But these conversations cannot and should not be avoided.

So, for today’s Five on Friday, I want to share with you five strategies that have helped me navigate difficult conversations with a high degree of success. These strategies can be categorized as “the PAUSE principle of negotiating” because in a difficult conversation you are indeed negotiating for a desired outcome.

The “PAUSE principle” is built upon two Bible passages. The first is Philippians 2:3-4: “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.”

The second passage is Matthew 7:12: “So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.”

These two passages of Scripture provide great insight and wisdom that set the stage for being able to effectively negotiate any difficult conversation.

Here are the five strategies of “The PAUSE Principle of Negotiating”…


Before you begin a difficult conversation, identify the issue to be addressed and why it needs to be addressed. Also, decide the goal of the conversation – what are you hoping to achieve by having this conversation? I would also recommend that you prepare yourself emotionally, mentally, and spiritually through prayer. Pray for the person with whom you will be talking; pray that you approach the conversation with the right spirit and attitude, ready to listen and understand; and pray for a mutually beneficial result.

Affirm Relationships

Even difficult conversations should begin on a positive note, so take the time to affirm the relationship you have with the person to whom you are talking. Share something you truly  appreciate about that person, as well as your desire to resolve the issue in a way that benefits your relationship. Use this affirmation as evidence for why you are confident that the issue being addressed can be worked out.

Understand Interests

Difficult conversations deal more with perceptions than facts, so approach the conversation from a posture of listening with the intent to understand the other person’s interests and point of view. This is important for two reasons that are  pointed out by the authors of the book Difficult Conversations:

“In difficult conversations, too often we trade only conclusions back and forth, without stepping down to where most of the real action is: the information and interpretations that lead each of us to see the world as we do.”

“Arguing creates another problem in difficult conversations: it inhibits change. Telling someone to change makes it less rather than more likely that they will. This is because people almost never change without first feeling understood.”

Search for Creative Solutions

Involving the other person in the problem-solving process makes it more likely that he or she will follow through on the solution. So, instead of only giving your idea of how you want this problem to be solved, first ask the other person for his or her ideas. And be courageous and creative enough to search for a solution that is beneficial and agreeable to both of you.

Evaluate Options Objectively and Reasonably

If you’ve practiced the four strategies mentioned above, then you’ve set the stage for the problem-solving options to be evaluated by both parties in an objective and reasonable way. The previous four strategies help to defuse high-running emotions so that a fair-minded evaluation of the problem and the proposed solutions can take place. This is the point where both parties can get on the same page, feeling that each has been heard and had a say in solving the issue.

These five steps will help you (as they have helped me) negotiate the next difficult conversation you have to have. But if you would like to learn more about the art of navigating difficult conversations, I highly recommend the Harvard Negotiation Project’s excellent book Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most by Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton, and Sheila Heen. It’s worth the investment of time and money.



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