5 tips for difficult conversations

Have you ever found yourself dreading going to work or running into someone in the hallways because of an uncomfortable encounter you had with them recently?

It could be an issue you have with someone who works for you or somewhat above you. You don’t want to talk to them, but you can only avoid them for so long. You’re both going to end up at the same coffee maker in the breakroom at some point in the next few days. So you have to do something.

Or it could be someone you work with who constantly complains, criticizes your efforts, blames you and tries to shame you for something you’ve done or accuses you of things that simply aren’t true.

You know you need to say something, but you don’t know where to start.

Well I’m here to tell you there’s a book that has some excellent advice for helping you handle these conversations in a way that creates a positive outcome for everyone involved. 

No matter how challenging the conversation might be, by using a few of these pointers, instead of making the situation worse you could completely diffuse the negative energy.

It all depends on the words you use.

Here are 5 powerful tips from the book Tongue Fu by Sam Horn on how to have difficult conversations in a way that nullifies the other person’s negativity and transforms conflict into cooperation. 

Click on each tip below for the full description:

When people complain, don’t explain. Instead do what Ms. Horn calls the ‘AAA train’. When you explain to people what went wrong it actually makes people angrier because it feels like an excuse on your part and doesn’t solve their problem in the first place.

Instead do these three A’s which are: Agree, Apologize and Act. 

For example you could say “You know you’re right Ms. Jones. We did not have your hotel room ready on time and I apologize for that. If I could please get your credit card, I will book you into another room that’s ready but it’s on one floor above your original room.”

Voila, the complaint disappears.

Whatever you do, don’t deny or defend untrue accusations. If someone says to you “You women are so emotional” and you protest back with “We are not!” you’re going to prove exactly what they are saying with your response. 

Instead, ask the question “Well what do you mean?”. It puts the conversation back in their court. By asking them a question about their statement it could help cause them to reflect deeper on their accusation. Then you can address those feelings that are bothering them in a back and forth conversation rather than reacting to their original attack.

This tip really works when people are blaming, shaming or fault finding. You want to put your hand up the way a traffic cop holds up their hand to stop the traffic. Hold up your hand in a ‘stop’ gesture until those in the room stop talking. 

If you try to talk over people who are arguing with you or others in the room, you’re only going to end up raising your voice, and they’ll reply with even greater volume and force. 

When you hold up your hand in the ‘stop’ position it will cause a pause in the conversation which will allow you to interject at a normal speaking voice volume and calm down the situation. You can even quote someone to help diffuse the tension even more.

Once you’ve spoken, if the conversation heats up again, you can make the letter ‘T’ sign with your hands and call ‘time out’ like a referee in a game. Then say something like ‘You two yelling at each other is not going to fix this. Instead, let’s focus on how we can keep [this issue] from happening again.”


This tip is perfect for when you have to give someone bad news. It helps diffuse the emotional lashback you may be expecting to receive.

Essentially don’t use apathetic phrases like “There’s nothing we can do about it.” or “There’s no way we can do that.” For example if it’s raining the day your softball team was meant to play, and your team mate is bummed out don’t say an absolute statement that creates a dead-end like “There’s nothing we can do about it.” If you say something like that, it will seem like you don’t care and the complaining could continue much longer than you want to hear it.

Instead, use more empathetic words like “I wish…” or “I hope…” to show you really care. So in this example you could say “I wish I could bring out the sun for us. I know you were really looking forward to the game. All the games in the city are rained out so it’s not like we’ll be behind in the standings this week. We’ll be at the same place as everyone else.”

This is a much better way to diffuse the situation vs. shrugging your shoulders and giving the impression you don’t care.

This one is a biggie. This tip is about what to say when you need to say ‘no’ to someone’s request. Turn “I can’t because…” into “Yes, as soon as…”.

For example, imagine you are running your own company and you have so much work coming in you know that with your small team of 3 you’ll never be able to take on more work. A new client shows up on your doorstep and you know you need to say ‘no’ even though it’s a good opportunity. 

Instead, you should say “Yes” to the new client. “Yes, we can take on your project as soon as we’re finished our current project with ACME company which should be in about two weeks. In the meantime we could start with initial conversations about what you need. Does that work for you?”

This way your ‘no’ is transformed into a ‘yes, later’ and everyone feels like they won.

For more ‘tongue fu’ fighting moves, click the link to the book here: Tongue Fu by Sam Horn.

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