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Turning difficult dialogues into confident conversations – Stella Collins, Director of Stellar Business

Stella Collins, Director of Stellar Business

Thomas Sackville, 1st Earl of Dorset had the unfortunate task of informing Mary Queen of Scots that she was to be beheaded. He did it with such tact and diplomacy that she thanked him with a wooden carving that is still in the family home, Knole House, in Kent.

Unfortunately, the words and manner in which he passed on this message don’t seem to have been recorded as they may have left us an excellent example of what to do when faced with a difficult dialogue.

Most of us put off these conversations as long as we can and then they can build up in our mind as something momentous until we have a sense of inevitability that it will all go horribly wrong.

We focus on how we feel and on our thoughts rather than thinking about the other person. Resentment and anger can build up until we may even blame them for putting us in this position. None of this leads to productive conversations but here are 10 tips to help.

  1. Plan the conversation – when is a good time, where, what outcomes might suit you both?
  2. Put yourself in their shoes to anticipate how it will sound from their point of view.
  3. Practise with someone who is not closely involved and can hear the conversation dispassionately.
  4. Anticipate possible responses but don’t make assumptions about how the other person will behave, feel or think.
  5. During the conversation listen carefully and watch the other person’s body language to help you determine when to wait and when to press on.
  6. Treat the issue as a problem to be solved by both of you rather than ‘me’ against ‘you’ – it can diffuse some tension and lead to a more reasoned solution.
  7. Be straightforward and clear in your language; avoid waffling to prevent confusion and misinterpretation.
  8. Don’t put it off until you’ve talked yourself out of it – the consequences of not having the conversation may be worse than addressing the issue.
  9. Handle any emotions that come out but don’t allow the conversation to be hijacked by emotions.
  10. Remain sensitive to the consequences, good and bad, that may come from the conversation.

When you’ve got a difficult conversation coming up, imagine what you’d have done if you were Thomas Sackville and apply those ideas to your own conversation.

For more ideas about handling communication confidently read our regular blog at or come on one of our workshops on Communication and Business Skills for people working in science or technology at Milton Park, near Abingdon. To find out more click here.

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