Managing a Crisis? 3 First Aid Tips for ‘Difficult Conversations’

Even when your organisation is in crisis mode you still need to hold
people accountable. Yet raising ‘difficult’ issues -performance, behaviour,
or any unmet expectations – is hard to do properly when the stakes are
high and everyone is running on adrenalin.

So how can you manage those ‘difficult conversations’ in a time-strapped,
pressure cooker environment?
1. PAUSE – cool down and calm down: do nothing before you do anything.
Under pressure, our ‘hot’ buttons tend to get hotter, our patience and tolerance in short
supply. Stress releases chemicals in the brain that impair our capacity for rational and
higher level thinking. We are more sensitive to the triggering behaviour of others and more
likely to react or fly off the handle.
Start by taking responsibility for this. That doesn’t mean accepting another person’s
behaviour, passively seeing everything as your short fuse. But you need to start with
‘managing’ yourself first before you go figuring out how to deal with the other person.
Find a way, even for a few minutes to slow down, take a step back and cool down some of the
pulse-racing feelings that are coming up. Do whatever you have to do to allow the dust to
settle because that’s the most important first step. A busy, harried mind is not a good
starting point for a ‘difficult conversation’.
2. Allow CLARITY to emerge:
Negative emotions – frustration, impatience, irritation can cloud your more measured
commonsense thinking.
You get into further overdrive trying to figure out what to do and/or say.
Your mind will wander easily into the person’s past wrongs. You are likely to be bringing a
whole story of ‘how difficult they are’ into the incident that has most recently arisen. Once
that’s happening in your head, it’s can leak out in your interaction with them.
More useful is to focus on the future – what’s most at stake here and what’s the change that
needs to happen now. What are the non-negotiables that you need to make clear and hold
firm on? What aspects are less important at this point?
Let the waters settle and the sediment of
negative thinking and labelling about the
other person get sifted out
From a calmer state of mind, it will become clearer to you what’s most at stake and
the key concerns you need to discuss and set boundaries around, with the other
3. Communicate CLEANLY, SUCCINCTLY, unfettered by the narratives and
assumptions you might hold about them
What is it you need them to understand about your non-negotiables?
It’s not just the words, your tone can also betray underlying ‘here-we-go-again’ feelings.
“In any situation the person who can most accurately describe reality without
laying blame will emerge as the leader, whether designated or not”
Edwin Friedman.
Describe what happened.
Explain the impact.
Acknowledge (briefly) the challenging context.
Request the change you need to see and set a ‘done by’ date to check back with
For example:
“The students were all to have received the details of their next assignment with clear
guidelines on drafting their answers by Friday last. Some approached me to say they
didn’t get the assignment. Appreciate that things are pretty hectic at the moment for
everyone. Can you get the project details to them asap and let me know when you have
done that. Thank you”
“The suppliers were to have received details of the order for xxx. They rang yesterday
saying this never arrived. I get that there is a huge backlog. However, I’m concerned that
any delay in getting the order in could have serious repercussions for our timelines on
production. Can you please prioritise their order and get it to them asap. Let me know
when that has gone through. Thanks”
These might read a little sergeant-majorish… but it’s all in how you say it: your tone should
be calm, cordial and respectful.
If they argue back, get defensive don’t go there. Instead, try some acknowledgement [‘I get that
you are busy, things are very stressed…’].
Reiterate what’s at stake or what the impact is of not following through and repeat the request
about the change you need to see.
Keep it short, to the point and avoid getting into lecturing or persuasion.
In summary then, there are three simple (but perhaps not so ‘easy’ steps):
1. Pause – take a step back and don’t react
2. Let your mind ‘settle’ and bring clarity, about the core future-focused issues and nonnegotiables at stake that need to be resolved
3. Communicate key messages cleanly, succinctly, respectfully
For more details on transforming ‘difficult conversations’ into win-win conversations download
my free eBook POISE NOW – 8 Steps to Win-Win Conversations for Leaders and Managers.