Tips for managing difficult behaviours and interactions in the workplace

Framing What You Need to Say in a ‘Difficult Conversation’ – Free Template

Download Word Doc version of ‘Framing Your Key Messages
Download a completed template ‘Framing Your Key Messages in Addressing an Issue‘  in relation to addressing lateness. (This is an example of how you might use the template , it is not a prescription or recommendation. Your context, situation and way of expressing yourself might be completely different.)

Video Transcript

Hi Mary Rafferty here

In this video I’d like to share a tool from my ‘Difficult Conversations’ training programmes.

This tool can be used in many contexts to support someone preparing to give a difficult message to another person. It might be a manager having to raise a ‘tricky’ issue with a member of their team. Or perhaps you are facilitating/mediating between 2 people and want to help each person prepare how best they might communicate their concerns to one another.

It can also work as a coaching tool that you might share and go through with a client who is planning how to address an issue with another person.

So the tool is called ‘Framing Your Key Messages’, for those of you who have a copy of my eBook POISE NOW – you can download for free on my website – this tool relates to step 4 = S – Share.
You can see  on the left hand side a set of prompts to help shape what you need to say in a constructive way.

The first box invites you to ‘name the issue’ so in other words, put some wording on what the ‘topic’ as it were is that’s being discussed. However, you see I’ve also put the words ‘open frame’ so it’s about using wording that doesn’t already pre-judge or cause the person to feel they are being attacked.

A typical example of a closed frame would be ‘talk to you about your attitude’ so that phrasing implies a judgement about the other person and that they are in some way a ‘problem’. Whereas an open frame would be where I might say ‘I’d like to talk to you about what happened in two recent Project X meetings…I was concerned that you didn’t seem to be contributing as much as you usually do and wanted to ask you about that and what’s happening for you in relation to the Project’

The second box then invites you to be more specific. So perhaps write out a couple of examples – it’s always good to get these on paper for yourself anyhow. Then in terms of communicating these, a nice frame that comes from the Crucial Confrontations people is the idea of ‘describing the gap’ – so simply stating what your observations were as against your expectations.

Again, you are trying to move away from getting into value-based labels and opinions such as ‘bad attitude’ or ‘very unmotivated’ and find a way to express your concerns in terms of observed ‘facts’ e.g. ‘you didn’t ask any questions and that’s not usual for you in my experience of you at previous meetings’

Clarifying what’s at stake can be helpful – so giving the person insight into your reasoning and your thinking and assumptions in relation to the issue. That can range from the impact on the work, project to the broader impact perhaps at a team level or even a concern you might have in terms of a negative impact for that person themselves.

The fourth box invites you to reflect on some wording that might describe the emotional impact for you – if relevant or appropriate. This is not an encouragement to act out your emotions and tell them how awful they are and how angry you are. Rather it’s about reflecting on whether and how best to communicate the impact of a behaviour or action perhaps that you might have found difficult at that professional -personal level.
For example, ‘when you don’t engage much during the meetings, the impact for me is a sense that you don’t want to be there…and that I’m annoying you or putting upon you in some way…’

Next, acknowledging, if relevant, what your own contribution might be to the issue can also be helpful so you are demonstrating you are willing to take ownership of your part in an issue rather than make the other person be “the problem”. You are also modelling an openness to reflecting on one’s behaviour and naming things one could have in hindsight done differently.

Indicating your positive intentions and wish to resolve the issue – here you are being deliberate in trying to counteract the ‘negativity bias’. This is our human tendency to pay more attention, or give more weight to negative experiences over neutral or positive experiences.

Having now spelt out or expressed your concerns, you want to ensure that you also assure the person of a positive intent in the conversation and name for them your wish to resolve and make things work better for both.

Finally, having said your piece, it’s now time to pose some sort of question that communicates to them that you want to hear their viewpoint and perspective on the situation.

You can see then underneath, some further bullet points suggesting next steps i.e. listening, drawing their viewpoint out further with some questions, using paraphrasing to check then that you’ve understood their viewpoint. The last bullet is then about you checking in with them to see that they’ve understood your viewpoint.

There is a copy of this template available to download above. I’ve also used the template to frame how one might address a simple (not necessarily easy!) issue such as lateness for work. So there will be a copy of that above also. Of course I’ve completed this using my words and my phrases – I’m not suggesting you say things exactly as I would, this is just an example. You have to find words and phrases that ring true and authentic for you.

I’m also putting some links to other blog posts on this theme that you might find helpful.

Let me know how you get on! And please get in touch if I can be of any help whether it’s coaching, training or mediating any aspect of ‘difficult’ conversations that might arise for you – just email me at:

Thanks for watching!

Other related blog posts:

Trying to Get Your Point Across But They Won’t Listen
The Secret Ingredient for Success in Difficult Conversations
Frustrated trying to deal with difficult behaviour? Try these 3 simple shifts



Difficulties in Working Relationships: Understand and Reverse The Negative Cycle

When we find ourselves becoming increasingly annoyed, upset or fearful around someone’s behaviour and attitude over an extended period of time, here’s what tends to happen for many people:

Negative Cycle of Interaction

  1. We start to have increasingly negative thoughts about that person/persons which in turn causes us to experience a greater level of unpleasant emotions such as anger, hurt, irritation etc.
  2. We begin to see that person as a key source of our own stress and negative feelings at work and often end up ruminating and worrying about it outside the workplace.
  3. We get into a mindset of thinking that they have to change before we can feel good about coming to work. We find ourselves putting a lot of our attention and focus on that other person’s behaviour, how bad it is, how they aren’t doing X or Y etc.
  4. This consumes huge amounts of our positive energy and motivation and we begin to see oStressed about conflict urselves as the ‘victim’ of that other person/persons behaviour and attitude. Frequently, we also have a story in our minds about that person’s behaviour in some way undervaluing us or undermining us. We can even let this story take over how we see ourselves and find ourselves wanting to try and ‘make’ this other person realise that we are of value and we are a worthwhile person.
  5. When that happens we have then disempowered ourselves and lost touch with our own inner resilience and wisdom about how best to handle and negotiate the situation with this other person/persons. We tend to be reactive and operating from a hurt, angry or irritated state of mind. We have lost touch with our own inner wisdom and intelligence about how to negotiate and engage with this person in a constructive and productive way.
  6. We then ‘react’ in some way (even if it’s just that we are less friendly, open and trusting in our attitude). They of course pick this up and similarly the cycle happens for them. A vicious cycle of action-impact-reaction gets set up between us and them.

Reversing the Negative Cycle – Some points to reflect on

1. To what extent to which you are allowing the negative thoughts about that person/persons and their behaviour (whether it’s how they interact with you or whether it’s to do with how they perform in their role) affect your own mood and well-being?

2. Whildamaged trust workplacee it looks like other people can ‘make us feel’ a certain way, no-one can have that ‘power’ unless we give it to them. How we feel in any one moment is determined by what’s going on inside our own minds not outside of us. It’s like a bank account, no one can put in or take out without you letting them. For example, if you really think about it, you will find that the same behaviour from another person in a different context might not bother you so much.

3. Realise that you can let the negative thoughts about the other person and the situation (you can’t actually stop or prevent your thoughts) just come into your mind and ‘go out the other side’ rather than letting them determine your mood and state of mind.

4. Understand that beneath all the thinking and worrying, you have access to an amazing creative and resourceful intelligence and intuition that can help and guide you on the best approach to deal with this person and this situation.

5. Understand that you always have access to this innate resilience and intelligence when you are in a calm, centred state of mind. That’s all you need to do… Move away from thinking that your worth and value as a person is linked to what someone else does or says. Instead, turn your attention inward and see if you can get in touch with your own clarity, wisdom and peace of mind.

6. From that place, then be open to figuring out how you can talk things through with that other person in a constructive and effective way.
What might be some of the things you need to talk about and start doing differently so that each of you can interact and work together in a productive way?

So does this mean I shouldn’t feel this way?

So does this mean that it’s all my own fault? That this person’s ‘difficult’ behaviour or unhelpful actions are all ‘ok’ and that I’m the person who has to change?
In life, there will always be people who do or say things and act in ways that seem to upset or frustrate us. Indeed their behaviour might be described by most people as ‘difficult’ or ‘inappropriate’ or ‘undermining’.
That’s a fact. Nobody is denying this.
And as we are all human, there is no denying that our experience of this behaviour can be unpleasant and upsetting. However, your main job in life is to look after you… and it’s tempting to think that if you can ‘make the other person change’, that this is how best to look after yourself. But the trouble is, you can’t control anyone else’s behaviour. You can’t control how they act or whether they will take on board your requests for them to change. So you have to look after and take responsibility for the only person you can influence – yourself.
That means knowing that you have access to a state of mind where you aren’t as affected emotionally by their behaviour. It means tapping into your own innate resilience, your own inbuilt ‘well-being’ immune system. Then you have a clear calm mind to help you focus on making the best attempts possible to positively influence them. So it’s about ‘putting on your own oxygen mask’ first before trying to ‘tackle’ any kind of dialogue or conversation with them about change.

Engage in dialogue from a clear and more settled ‘state of mind’
Once you are in a clearer, calmer and more centred state of mind, you are in a better place to engage in a dialogue with the other person/persons about making things work better. From this frame of mind you can think clearly about what it is you might need from them to be able to work together more effectively. Equally, you are more open to hearing from them, what they might need from you to work more effectively.

If you’d like to find out more, check out my blog or download my free eBook here
Or if I can help in any way, please drop me an email at

What if someone persists in a behaviour despite your feedback?

You’ve asked them once, you’ve asked them a second time and yet the behaviour still keeps happening. How to address behaviour that persists despite your feedback about it.


Hi Mary Rafferty here

Today I want to talk to you about a question that came up yesterday in a seminar I was delivering to a team of managers on the theme of dealing with conflict on the team. The question was about dealing with repeated instances of behaviour that have occurred, despite getting feedback about this.

The situation relates to a manager who has a person on her team, who has a tendency to get into a rage or an angry outburst. It doesn’t happen very often, but when it does, it tends to have a lot of fall out for other members of the team e.g the person on the receiving end of that particular outburst. People find it very difficult, very undermining, and so she wanted to do address this.
The manager has already talked to this team member in the past when there was an incidence of this reaction and given her feedback about it. They would have a conversation and then things were usually fine again for the next period and then it would happen again.
These outbursts have started to happen more recently in the past 12 months so a new year ahead, she wanted to sit down and have a conversation about putting a plan in place so that this kind of behaviour would no longer be happening.
So here are three things I said that she might think about in planning and having this conversation.

Content, Pattern or Relationship

When you have a situation where there is a behaviour that despite being addressed continues to happen again and again, it’s time to reach for the CPR approach. CPR is an acronym coined by the authors of the **‘Crucial Conversations’ and ‘Crucial Accountability’ series of books and the ‘C’ stands for Content.

So the first time something happens, e.g. in this particular situation, the staff member gets angry or has an outburst, you address the situation, provide feedback that focuses on that interaction or event, what happened, what was said.
If a situation starts to happen again and again, it’s time now to move onto the ‘P’ in CPR which stands for Pattern. Now you are talking to the person about a pattern of behavior that has started to emerge and you are no longer focusing on one instance. You’re now talking about the fact that there are repeated instances of this particular behaviour and the repeated the impact that this is having on whoever’s involved. This is the approach that I suggested the manager take in the conversation she was about to have with the staff member in the case above.
The ‘R’ in CPR stands for ‘Relationship’ and this is where we are no longer looking at the content, we’re no longer even talking about the pattern. You’re now actually seeing that you have a concern about that person’s ability or willingness to commit to that aspect of the work or behaviour. This results in you having to constantly harangue and nag them about it is having an impact on the working relationship and the trust you have in that person.

Don’t get drawn into a ‘he-said-she-said’ argument about the instances in the pattern

The second point I made was that in this conversation it’s quite likely that the staff member might get into defending, disagreeing with what did and didn’t happen, who said what and when etc. It can be easy to get drawn into a kind of ‘he-said-she-said’ argument about individual instances.
My suggestion, if that happens is to say something along the lines of the following:
“Look, I appreciate there have been other factors involved in these situations in the past. I don’t really want to get into that today. Instead, I want to focus on the fact that there has been a pattern of behaviors and that this pattern has become more frequent and look at what can we do in terms of a plan and how can I support you to ensure that these reactions and this way of you responding to these kinds of situation stop happening in the future”

Stay non-judgemental and supportive but set a clear boundary

The third point I made is that your approach and mindset is one of kindness, supportiveness, that is you wanting to help on the one hand, but also setting a clear boundary on the other hand. So you might say something like
“ I appreciate that the customers can be difficult …or the deadlines can be really tight and it’s really stressful for you, that you’re really passionate about things and want them to go right and then you get really frustrated. I get all that. The point I’m trying to make today and what I want to help you to look at is how can we ensure that whatever it is happening for you internally and how you’re feeling and whatever supports you need around that, these behaviors that have such a strong impact on others around you make the whole atmosphere pleasant, that these behaviors are no longer occurring and you’re finding a better way to interact when these kind of situations come up for you.”

It caring, concerned, but also, there’s a firm, red line there that you are setting around behaviours – ‘this can no longer happen’.


In summary then, first of all, when a situation starts to happen again and again talking about the pattern rather than to keep re-addressing each particular situation on its merits. Secondly that you don’t get drawn back into the argument over details of when, what happened, who did what etc. Instead, keep focused on what we’re trying to change, i.e. the pattern, into the future.
Thirdly that the conversation has a caring and kind supportive tone which also sets a really clear boundary around what sort of behaviors are acceptable or what sort of behaviors are going to promote a positive atmosphere in the team and what sort of behaviors are just not helpful at all.

If you have a situation you’d like some help with, please drop me an email, check out our facebook page @consensusmediationcoaching and you can message me from there.

Please like our facebook page. Thanks for watching.

**Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes are High (2006)

Crucial Accountability: Tools for Resolving Violated Expectations, Broken Commitments, and Bad Behavior (2013)
Authors: Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, Ron McMillan, Al Switzler

Dealing with a Difficult Person? Start Here:

Video Transcript

Hi, Mary Rafferty here.
In this video today I want to talk to you on the topic of dealing with difficult people. This is a very broad subject and there are so many variables that will influence how best to respond or deal with any particular situation where you’re experiencing another person as difficult. For example, it depends on whether it’s in the workplace, at home, your role in the conversation, the purpose of the conversation, etc. It’s impossible to cover all of those in this short video.
Instead I want to point out a couple of underlying principles that regardless of the situation or the person, these will hold true.

All of us have this box or this category in our minds, let’s call it the “difficult person” box and there are a few people in our environment, whether it’s at work, at home, in the community that all of us have parked in this category.
We’ve had a few encounters with them.
It has been difficult for whatever reason and we have then assigned them a place in this little room.
It would be lovely if we could put them in the room, mentally at least, turn the key and never have to deal or interact with them again. That would be fine if we have that choice and sometimes we do have that choice.
But in a lot of situations these are people we work with or they are people we live with. So we don’t have the choice to say “okay, I’m not going to talk to that person again…I’m not going to deal with them again”

So let me challenge you a little on this.
What if I was to say, actually there’s no such thing as a fixed category of difficult people?
Now I’m not trying to be Pollyanna-like about this.
Neither am I saying that there aren’t situations and times where everyone experiences someone else in their work or their home life or wherever, as very frustrating, very annoying and difficult to be around.
Perhaps they say things that are very hurtful.
Perhaps they say things that are very irritating. All of us have those experiences of a few other people in our environment. But having this very fixed category in our mind of the ‘difficult persons’ box that we assign the same people to, over and over again is really not very helpful.

Let me explain.
We like to think that our minds work a little bit like a camera. So there is a tree in the field. We take our camera, we snap, and then we have an accurate representation of the tree.
We imagine our minds are similar. We see a person out there, they are a ‘difficult person’ and we have captured an accurate image of this ‘difficult’ person and it’s a very fixed solid reality.
In fact, our mind is more like a virtual reality headset.
So we’re not actually experiencing the objective reality out there. Yes, it’s happening, but we’re creating our own internal experience of what’s happening outside us.

So you might wonder…virtual reality headset camera, so what?
Well, that has a number of significant positive implications for how you deal with difficult person or indeed any challenge in your life.
You see the more you can start to grasp that our experience is internally generated, that we live in in a thought-created reality, it just allows us to relax our grip on this very fixed, solid idea of this person being a ‘difficult’ person.
Yes, you’ll have memories of things that happened. You’ll have worries and concerns about something in the future, but the more you can start to see that that’s a transient and thought-generated noise that’s constantly going through our minds, the greater sense of ease, composure, sense of balance that you will have regardless of the behavior of the other person.

You’ll begin to see that if you’re in a more relaxed state of mind, if you’re less caught up in the noise in your head about that person, then you’re going to be different in those interactions.

You’re going to be more open and be less defensive.
You’re going to be less wary, less on edge.
You’re going to have greater sense of goodwill towards that person. That will impact on the interactions you have with them.
Secondly, for the time you’re not in that person’s presence you’ll be much less impacted. So often people say to me, you know, it’s that I’m worrying and thinking about this person when I’m at home in the evening. This person is taking up too much space in my head.
That’s not going to be happening as much.
Instead, you will begin to see that this is just all part of the continuous noise that everybody’s experiences about difficult situations in their lives. When you don’t take it on and take it all too seriously, it sort of disappears by itself.

You will find yourself less caught up worrying about their behavior or worrying about the next interaction or ruminating on the last interaction you’ve had with them.
You’re just going to be in a more resourceful, more open, more relaxed state of mind.
Because you are more resourceful, then you’re going to be having much more effective and useful thoughts and ideas about how to deal with the person in the way that gets the best outcome for whatever situation you’re in.

So the key takeaway from this video is that, yes, there are individuals out there who for one reason or another, all of us will find at some point in our lives very difficult.
We will fall into a groove of very negative thinking and a very negative story about that person and their behaviors.
That in turn will have a knock on effect on your own sense of wellbeing and composure, certainly when you are around that person.
It will also have a negative fallout in on the interactions with them and it leaves you feeling unresourceful and unresilient at a time when you most need to be in a good state of mind. So the first thing you need to do, is to step back and realise the extent to which you are getting caught up in this negative story. Only then can you access your own inner resourcefulness and resilience to best manage the situation.

So if you found this video helpful and someone is coming to mind that you’d like some help in dealing with, please drop me an email at

You might find this blogpost here helpful also.

If there’s someone else you think might find it helpful, please share it using the social media buttons above or forward to a friend.

Thanks for watching!

Trying to Manage a ‘Difficult’ Person: Are they Taking too much space in your head?

Does a person on your team sap everyone’s energy?Stressed out with too much thinking

Do you find yourself putting too much time and attention as a manager on their behaviours?

Are you constantly listening to grumblings from others about them?

When people come for coaching in these situations, they are usually looking for a list of strategies. How can they be stronger, firmer, more hard-nosed in ‘making the other person’ do what they should be doing.
‘How could I be more robust with them…?’ or
‘How could I make them sit up and take on board what I’m saying?’

A couple of months ago, I worked with Liz who manages a team of 8 people. She had reached the end of her tether dealing with a person on her team – let’s call him Tom, who has been difficult to deal with on many levels, over the previous 12 to 18 months. She wanted some techniques and strategies to help her address Tom’s behaviour.

It’s so tempting to think that if you could just find the right way to say something, talk to them, negotiate with them, cajole them or coerce them, things would be different. And, yes indeed, there are certainly are ways of communicating and interacting with another person that can either escalate or de-escalate conflict. I have written a lot about these already here here, and here, for example.

But if the only thing that you needed when you are dealing with a difficult person was tips and techniques, life would be very simple indeed. The world abounds with self-help books and information on ‘how to’s’ of every type. Yet, for any of us when we are faced with a stressful and challenging situation, it’s not usually simply a question of lacking information or techniques.

Instead, it’s the amount of noise and stressful thinking that gets generated in our brains in situations, that really stumps us. It does begin to feel like they are literally ‘doing your head in’.

Some of the things preying on Liz’s mind in the situation with Tom were:

  • Frustration and irritation that Tom isn’t fully performing in his role and is upsetting other people on the team
  • Concern that performance deadlines won’t be met and the knock-on impact this will have on the customer and productivity
  • Frustration at the amount of time that she has to spend listening to Tom’s colleagues complaining about his disrespectful behaviour towards them
  • Self-doubt that she hasn’t been managing the situation effectively and unease that some of this behaviour might be ‘her fault’
  • Helplessness because she has actually had a number of conversations with Tom to address various aspects of his behaviour but these have had little effect
  • Exasperation that her valuable time could be used so much more effectively if Tom would just do what he is paid to do.

In her latest book, The He’art of Thriving (2017), Kimberley Hare reminds us of one of the great adages in coaching:   p=P-I

Performance = Potential Minus Interference

This formula refers to the swirl of (usually negative) emotions and thoughts that are distracting us, and sabotaging our own sense of clarity and well-being, in any given situation.

For Liz, there is a whole ‘thought-storm’ ranging from frustration, exasperation to anxiety taking up space in her brain. And it’s impacting on her confidence, leaving her feeling helpless and unresourceful about the next steps to deal with Tom.

What can you do about this ‘interference’?

How do you manage when your head gets so full with a problem that you start to doubt yourself?

How do you get back into the driving seat and begin to trust again, your own inner knowing and commonsense about how to manage a difficult situation?

Hare (2017) is one of a growing number of coaches and practitioners sharing a new and transformational paradigm* about the nature of the human mind and how our experience gets created.

‘Interference is always coming from our thinking in the moment, not our circumstances or the external world’ (Hare, 2017).

She points to two key and essential truths about how our minds work:

1. The human mind only works one way: from the inside-out:

Your mind (rather than what is happening around you) generates your moment-to-moment experience of any situation. You cannot have an experience without your thinking being involved.

2. We all have a built-in design for success, well-being, clarity and creativity:

Whether you believe it or not, you have an innate and inherent source of insight and wisdom that can provide you with fresh and creative solutions to any problem you encounter.

These two truths might sound simplistic and aspirational. But the implications have enormous potential to transform your personal and professional life.

The more deeply you understand and realise these two facts, the more you thrive.

Going back to my client Liz above, here’s what Liz began to ‘see’, as we explored the depth of these two truths.

First, she realised that, tempting as it was to see Tom as the ‘cause’ of her stress and frustration, that experience was being generated in her own mind. Knowing she has 100% responsibility for where her experience in any moment comes from gave her back a sense of power and psychological freedom. She no longer felt a victim of Tom’s behaviour.

‘You can never experience anything but your own thinking. It’s just not possible. Seeing this fact is like releasing the emergency brake of a sluggishly moving car. In the next moment performance improves’
Invisible Power, Insight Principles at Work: Everyone’s Inner Capacity: Manning, Charbit & Krot (2015)

Secondly, she realised (contrary to other ‘stress management’ training she had attended) that she didn’t have to try and ‘manage’ or stop her thinking about Tom and the situation.

Knowing instead that underneath all the barrage of negative thoughts and feelings she is having about Tom, her mind has its own innate self-correcting mechanism that will always kick in.

She could see that all she had to do was take a step back, get quiet and let her own inner knowing emerge, about where next to go, in dealing with the situation with Tom.

So you are thinking…what happened to Tom?

Did Liz pull off some miracle that transformed his behaviour? Probably not. (And that’s not what this blog is about!)

But she did feel a lot lighter, more at ease and so much clearer about what the next steps she had to take around managing him. She also found that much the worry and rumination about Tom as a ‘big problem’ had dropped away. She was back feeling confident and in control and had a renewed energy and focus to get on with her work.

‘Everyone in this world shares the same innate source of wisdom but it is hidden by the tangle of our own misguided personal thoughts.’
Sydney Banks


* Curious to learn more?

I have been studying and learning about this approach for the past three years and am applying it in particular, to coaching Managers and Leaders dealing with challenging and intractable conflict situations.

Known as ‘The Inside Out Paradigm’ or ‘Three Principles of Mind Consciousness and Thought’ (see for example this website: Three Principles Global Community or the references above) it is increasingly being shared and taught in a variety of contexts. Ranging from businesses, schools, hospitals, multi-national corporations, prisons, social services etc. it is one of the most effective ways to achieve well-being, resilience as well as effortless success.

Replaying a ‘difficult conversation’ in bed at night? Learn why we do it and how to stop

What a peaceful, pastoral scene, a cow contemplatively chewing on its cud. Grass is high in roughage and hard to digest. Nature has given some mammals the capacity to regurgitate the cud. By chewing it over and over, it yields more nutrients and benefits. We aren’t cows but we too get into cud-chewing behaviour. Have…

Relationships that Endlessly Frustrate: Can the Dynamic Be Changed?

“We don’t see things as they are, we see them as we are.” ~ Anaïs Nin Optical Illusion

The above quote neatly captures the psychological phenomenon, that while there is a factual and concrete reality out there, none of us have a truly objective view. There can be many different perceptions of the same situation. As an example, I show this picture to my mediation/conflict management training groups and ask people what they see. (What do you see by the way? An old man – side profile or facing forward… can you see the young woman and her baby?). And most of us get that it’s the same glass with water at the half-way mark that’s varyingly described as half-full or half-empty.

But when it comes to translating that theory into practice, in the negative emotional space of a difficult relationship, it’s much harder to believe that you are just operating from your own bias. You think you are seeing them as they are.

That was a challenge I’ve had for many years in a close personal relationship. I found this person difficult to be around. As far as I was concerned, it wasn’t just my perception, this was one of those exceptions…where the person truly is ‘difficult’ to handle.

We don’t experience events… we experience our thinking about events

For years, there has been ample research to demonstrate that what we perceive as reality is mediated through our own filters of thought – attitudes, beliefs, preconceptions. But what many psychologists are starting to realise, is that it’s not just that we have different interpretations of reality but that the reality we experience is 100% created by us – by our own thoughts and feelings occurring in every moment. Rather than us being at the mercy of our circumstances which are causing us to feel or think a certain way, life is an inside-out job.

No matter how scary or oppressive or insecure your experience of life may be, once you realize that it’s only your own thinking that you’re experiencing, that thinking loses much of its hold over you. We don’t experience the world; we experience our thinking about the world.
Michael Neill, The Inside Out Revolution

As the Mediator or Conflict Coach it’s easy to see this in action with clients – how they are experiencing their thinking rather than the concrete events. But when you are caught up yourself in a difficult relationship and the accompanying thoughts and feelings that get generated, it’s much harder to step back and be objective.

But it felt like objective reality…

This has been my experience in a longstanding relationship in my personal/family life which I have always found problematic. While there were arguments and stand-up rows in the past, in more recent years, I had applied all my own good ‘conflict management’ skills to our interactions. For the most part, I could remain constructive, calm, do the listening thing, be tolerant and accepting, manage my boundaries etc. Our relationship had certainly improved (on the outside) but truth be told, underneath my calm exterior, I felt irritated and resentful a lot of the time in their company. Every so often I’d erupt with a passive aggressive comment or side-swipe which didn’t help the situation.

At one level I could understand that it was my perceptions of this person that were somehow skewed. Yet at another level, I really believed that in this particular case, what I was seeing was objective reality. In other words, this person was truly a negative, self-centred, repetitive, judgemental, moody… you-name-it person and my only choice was to live with it and manage it to the best extent possible.

I’ve been dipping into a new approach to understanding the interplay between thoughts, feeling and behaviour. So I was curious to see if this could help me deal differently with this person in my life.

How we create a negative story in our minds and then substitute it for reality

In a coaching session with author and coach Dr Anne Curtis she invited me to slow down and reflect on what was going through my mind when I was in this person’s company. I began to see that even before I would meet them, I would have a whole negative story and history in my mind about what they might say or do. And I would even think through how I might cope with this behaviour when it would come up. When I was in their company then, I wasn’t really connecting with the person, rather I was listening to confirm my negative assumptions in a ‘here we go again’ kind of way.

Slowly it started to dawn on me that rather than this person causing me to feel/think a certain way, I was the creator of that experience. Sure they might be behaving in a way that would reinforce my ‘story’ but the unpleasant feelings were all coming from my own stream of negative thoughts about them.

Not only this, but this whole cacophony of pre-conceptions was getting in the way of any true connection or listening to this other person. I wasn’t really experiencing them; I was just experiencing my thinking about them. And that in turn was leading me to feel tetchy and impatient. Sure I didn’t react or express this but neither was I truly open to seeing beyond my own prejudices about them.

The freedom that comes from realising where feelings come from

These reflections were insightful but would it really change anything? Would I find it easier to spend time with them? Would I be less irritated and on edge?

Since then I’ve met with them several times. And the difference has been quite remarkable. I have completely let go of the negative stream of consciousness thinking and am now inwardly just calm and at ease. I’m able to listen at a much more empathic and genuine level. What I’m also seeing clearly is that the things they say that had previously really irked me are just them caught up in their thinking. And I don’t have to take it so seriously.

Not only is my experience different but there are subtle changes also in them. They are listening to me more, the negative and judgmental conversation has lessened.  I feel compassion and warmth now instead of judgement and resentment. Most importantly, I no longer care whether they change or not.

And… just to be clear about this… it’s not about having positive thoughts, practicing acceptance, forbearance or deep breathing. Neither is this about changing or reframing one’s thinking nor is it about denying the reality of difficult relationships.
Instead, it’s in understanding the source of our discomfort is our own arbitrary and transient thoughts which leaves us free to move beyond them and being more present to the moment and to the person in front of us.

Try it!

Read more about navigating difficult conversations with confidence and clarity download our free eBook ‘POISE NOW: 8 Steps to Winning Conversations’

Dreading a ‘Difficult Conversation’? Begin with the end in mind.

Purpose in Difficult ConversationYou know that feeling…. You’ve been tolerating and putting up with someone’s behaviour or poor performance at work for a long time. You have to talk to them about it but have been putting it off, hoping that they’d somehow pull their socks up.

The list is long… not getting reports, monthly plans etc. in on time; not co-operating with colleagues; being argumentative and negative at staff meetings; questioning what they are asked to do as not being in their ‘job description’ and generally undermining you in your attempts to manage.

Where will you start… it’s so tempting to sit them down and tell them fair and square, what it is that you’re not happy with.
It feels like it could be such a satisfying thing to do… because you are irritated, annoyed and this person has sucked away so much of your time and energy.

In fact you’ve got so much to say, it’s hard to know where to start…

But take a step back for a moment. Rather than focusing on where to start, begin by looking at where you’d like to finish up.

‘Begin with the end in mind’ Stephen Covey, 7 Habits of Highly Effective People

Where would you like to be at the end of this conversation?

What outcome do you want to have achieved when the two of you have finished talking?

What’s your Purpose in talking through your frustrations and concerns?

1.       What intentions do you have towards them? 

  • Are you looking to ‘fix’ them or ‘make them’ change their behaviour or attitudes?
  • Do you want to ‘hit and run’ – a quick dig to vent frustration or irritation?

Are you trying to win or prove that you are right?

Conversations tend to be more effective when we focus on purposes such as solving problems and making things better for both you and them. Conversations also work better if we have positive intentions towards the other person, if we care about or at least try to respect their goals or needs. 

2.       You can only control what you do and say, not how they respond

You know this already but just to remind you again… The only aspect of a conversation you can control is yourself – what you say or don’t say, how you respond to them.
What the person does or says during or afterwards is not in your gift.

However, you have 100% control over how you choose to influence that person.
What we know with certainty about ‘difficult conversations’ is that how you frame your key messages and respond to them is critical to the outcome.  

So begin by asking yourself how do you want things to be at the end of this conversation: that they are defensive and angry and even more unco-operative? Or they are a little more open to working with you to try and address your concerns.

3.       Get more specific on your ‘outcome’

You’ve identified that you aren’t happy and can rattle off a laundry list of concerns and even have facts and evidence to support them.
But think how that might land on the other person… you are trying to induce co-operation and openness…so overwhelming them with a list of their ills is probably counter-productive.

Start instead by selecting just three key things that you’d like to have agreed some changes around at the end of this meeting. Clarify what the positive changes you’d like to see are and figure out a constructive way of framing these key messages to them.

Want to find our more about managing a difficult conversation?

Download our eBook: POISE NOW: 8 Steps to Navigate Difficult Conversations 

Frustrated trying to deal with difficult behaviour? Try these 3 simple shifts

Addressing Difficult BehaviourFrustrated trying to deal with difficult behaviour?

Imagine you had a magic weather wand. A simple wave and you would have glorious sunshine, a gentle breeze with a cloudless blue sky above.

With your magic wand you would lighten people’s moods, you’d lift people’s energy and motivation. In one swoosh, you could banish the grey clouds and make those heavy bands of rain disappear.

Dealing with someone you’re finding difficult at work can feel like a lot of heavy rain. Every conversation is a strain. Team meetings can be a thunderstorm. And everyone gets wet.

Should you talk to them about the need to change their attitude?

Do you sit down and tell them just how disrespectful and rude they can be?

Or could those conversations just bring further gusts of rain and showers?

It’s easy to get pulled into seeing only rain showers when someone is hard to manage. They are moody, unco-operative, hard to approach, resist any kind of feedback, don’t meet work deadlines, upset people around them, rude, unreliable…the list seems endless.

How might you bring some lightness into the heavy weather of a ‘difficult person’ in your work environment?

Become aware of your negative bias

Once we begin to label someone a ‘difficult person’ we are increasingly attuned to seeing only the negative about that person. According to Psychologist Rick Hanson from UC Berkeley evolutionary survival instincts cause negative activity in the environment to be perceived more easily and quickly than positive events. Our brains are drawn more easily and quickly to bad news.

“The brain is like Velcro for negative experiences but Teflon for positive ones”

 Rick Hanson PhD

Soon you see only rain and dark clouds any time this person crosses your horizon. And not just when you see them, even thinking about them can send you into a bad mood. Their positive traits have become obscured by the murky skies of irritation or frustration with how they behave.

A conversation with them to talk about changing these behaviours runs the risk of using negative rather than positive language: ‘I don’t like your attitude’ or ‘You’re not a team player’

Research has also shown that use negative of words releases a cocktail of anxiety and irritation-inducing chemicals in the brain– for both the speaker and the listener. The follow-on effect is to undermine the level of trust and co-operation between you and them.

Three simple shifts

Here are three simple shifts that can act as a magic wand to bring some more lightness into how you raise issues and approach them so you have a more positive and productive impact.

  1. Start with just one or two key issues

    It’s easy to get bogged down in the long list of behaviours that you would like them to change.
    But where should you start?Ask yourself what behaviours are having the most impact on you or the team. Pick two or three and focus on those. For example, is it how they interact and communicate or does it make more sense to focus on a task area e.g. following through on time on some work responsibility.
  1. Flip from negative to positive

    You’re very clear on what’s wrong, what the problem is, what they don’t do. Disrespectful, unreliable, poor attitude… the list goes on. But communicating along these lines will only provoke denial and defensiveness rather than planting any seeds for change.

Ask yourself instead what behaviours would you like to see.

You might feel like saying

“You don’t get on well with other people on the team”

What does ‘don’t get on well with mean’?

How would you like team relationships to be? What would you like to see happening?

Flipping from negative to positive you could say instead

“I’d like to see you working more closely with others on the team”

  1. State specifically what you need them to do differently

When we’re in a negative frame of mind about someone, it’s easy to get into using vague and unclear labels about them. Phrases like ‘negative behaviour’ or ‘bad attitude’ or ‘unreliable’ roll off our tongues.

But think about it… none of these phrases give any clue to a person what specifically they are doing wrong and how they can correct it.

And how can someone be expected to change if they don’t really understand in a concrete and objective way what it is they need to do differently?

So instead of

“You don’t get on well with other people on the team”
you could try

“I’d like to see you working more closely with others on the team. There needs to be more frequent communication about the projects and updating each other – perhaps weekly. I’d like to see you working more collaboratively – that means sharing more information and talking issues through with the group before making final decisions on them”


Of course your intentions, your tone and body language need to be in sync with a mindset that’s focused on positive and supportive development and change.

Not a laundry list of all their wrongs and faults.

If you’d like to find out more about how to raise difficult behaviour issues with clarity, confidence and ease, download my free eBook ‘POISE NOW 8 Steps to Navigate Winning Conversations for Leaders and Managers’





The Secret Ingredient for Success in Difficult Conversations

The Secret Ingredient for Success in Difficult Conversations

Does the thought of difficult conversations make your stomach churn? Here’s the most important ingredient to make it work.

In a recent holiday in Italy I went on a ‘Try a Dive’ lesson. The dive centre was at a sandy beach next to a clear blue lagoon.

The water looked so inviting and delicious. But I was nervous.
Would I get the ‘bends’?
Would I be able to breathe? What about being completely submerged in dark water.

I needn’t have worried. The instructors took it step-by- step.
I learned how to breathe with a regulator. I learned the ‘Not Ok’ hand signal. By the time I got in the water, all the nerves had gone.

Because I felt safe. But it wasn’t only because the instructors had explained to me how to do everything. It was the calm, reassuring way in which they slowly but surely took me from dry land to deep water. They sensed my anxiety. They knew I was out of my comfort zone. So they really worked on showing concern and making me feel at ease.

Raising a ‘difficult’ issue with someone is like this. You are taking them on a deep dive.

Imagine there’s a problem with John, a member of your team. He’s missing deadlines, he’s not committed. You have to have a conversation with him.

You do your homework. You gather the evidence – what, when, where, he’s not followed through on things.

You stockpile responses to his excuses.

But what do you do to make him feel safe? How do you help him before, during and after the ‘dive’ to understand that he is not going to drown in the murky waters of this conversation?

Difficult conversations flounder not because of our message but because what the other person believes about our intent

Think about the last training or course you took. You probably got some negative feedback from the trainer as you were trying out your new skill.

Did you get defensive?
Did you take it personally?

Probably not. In fact, you welcomed it. You trusted the trainer had your best interests at heart. They weren’t out to get you. They wanted to help, they cared about your learning and your progress.

You knew that instinctively because of the relationship and context.

When you are trying to raise a difficult issue with someone you need to be more explicit about making them feel safe.

“At the foundation of every successful accountability conversation lies safety. When others feel unsafe you can’t talk about anything. But if you can create safety, you can talk with almost anyone about almost anything – even about failed promises”

 Patterson et. al., ‘Crucial Accountability’ 

What might be the safety concerns people have in these kinds of conversations? 

  1. They doubt your intentions towards them:
    When others don’t like what they hear, the fundamental attribution error means they draw negative conclusions about your intent. They assume the worst.
    They feel undermined. Therefore, you meant to undermine them.
  • What you can do:
    Be explicit – let them know that you understand they might feel you are trying to upset them. My teenage daughters regularly give me frank and honest feedback about everything from my clothes to my parenting. Their comments usually start ‘No offense Mum but….’.

Patterson et al call this Contrasting. It’s a simple three-step process:

  • You imagine beforehand what’s the worst they might think
  • You flag this early on and explain it’s not what you intend
  • You then explain what you do intend.

So for John above it might be: ‘John, I realise that you have been under a lot of other pressures in your work/life. I’m not trying to undermine or annoy you. It’s just I’m concerned about the deadlines and how I can support you in meeting them…’

  1. They believe that you don’t respect them as a person:
    When people know that you care and respect them as a person then it’s amazing what you can get away with. For example, at heart, I know my daughters respect me. So aside from finding their comments sometimes helpful, but often mildly irritating, they don’t impact hugely.
  • What you can do:

Respect is communicated more in what we don’t say than in what we do. Our body language, tone of voice, eye contact belie us.
Make sure you have these kinds of discussions in private.
If you are finding it hard to respect them because of what they’ve done, then work on yourself and your judgement before you sit down with them.

  1. They feel you don’t care about what’s important to them, what we value or need:
    You typically get so preoccupied with getting your side of the message across that you forget to ask about their side. Your focus is on making convincing-sounding arguments rather than really listening.
  • What you can do:
    Give as much time to drawing out and listening to their side as stating your viewpoint. Paraphrase back to show that you have understood. Ask probing (but non-interrogatory) questions to help draw out what might worry or concern them.
  1. They believe you are trying to achieve an outcome that will negatively impact on them:
    Unless you work hard to avoid it, a common mistake is that they see the situation as a zero sum game. Either you have to win or they do. The effect is heightened if they feel in some way you have more power than them – as a Manager or if you represent a majority view.
  • What you can do:
    Don’t go in with a preconceived solution that you are trying to convince them to buy into. Instead, see the conversation as a joint search for workable options that meet each person’s key needs and concerns.

When trying to resolve an issue or deal with a problem behaviour it’s natural to focus on the ‘what’ of the conversation: what they have done that’s not working, what they need to do differently.

Paradoxically it is often not the message itself – the ‘what’ – but the ‘how’ of delivery that leads to ill feeling.

So yes, get clear on the issues and changes required.

But work also on creating a respectful, reassuring atmosphere.

That’s the cornerstone for success in ‘difficult conversations’.

To read more about navigating difficult conversations with confidence and clarity download our free eBook ‘POISE NOW: 8 Steps to Winning Conversations’

or REGISTER NOW for our one-day Workshop and Coaching Programme September 28th, 2016