Published in The CEO Magazine
Published on March 27, 2018

One of the most important things a CEO must do is have skillful difficult conversations – holding people accountable, rolling out change people don’t like, pushing back with the board, and for those of you with teenagers, telling them “no” to something they really, REALLY, want.

I’ve trained and coached many CEO’s, and these are 4 common mistakes that they (and I) make that will trigger other people defensive emotions when having a difficult conversation:


1. Not managing your own emotions and thinking first.

If we go into any conversation and we are emotionally triggered or anxious, or we are focusing on the wrong thinking – or both – that spells doom for the conversation.   From our work in Emotional Intelligence, we recommend that you take time before a difficult conversation to disconnect (i.e. not think about the conversation), breathe deeply for a few minutes (meditation is even better), then shift your thinking from all the things that could go wrong and focus on the reason and purpose for the conversation – or as we say in the next bullet point, focus on your positive intention for having the conversation.


2. Not clarifying a positive intention.

Too often, we start a conversation and the other person isn’t clear why we are having the conversation.  In the absence of that clarity, the emotional brain of the other person will assume it’s something negative.  If you want to learn more about the brain science of emotions and why people amplify the negative, watch the second video here.

By stating a positive intention at the beginning of the conversation, you set the other person’s emotional brain at ease, so they can truly listen to the feedback.  Examples could include “I am providing this feedback because I believe it will help you be an even better performer” or “I have news to share and I want to make sure you know how much I value you when this conversation is over”.


3. Starting with statements – or questions that sound like statements.

The emotional brain is triggered by statements like “you did this” or “you should have done that” or even questions that sound like statements such as “what you were thinking?” or “did you not think about how this would impact others?”.
When we ask genuine non-judgmental questions, it engages the neo-cortex of the other person (the rational part of their brain), causing soothing of the emotional part of the brain, which allows them to process the feedback, news or opposing idea without being defensive or closed minded. Example questions could include “give me your perspective?”, “how you feel things went?” or “what’s this been like for you”.

The other advantage of asking non-judgmental questions is a lot of times people will own up to a mistake or something they did wrong without you even having to bring it up!


4. Not saying the Last 8%.

When facing a challenging conversation, most leaders adequately cover the first 92% of what they want to cover. When they get to the more difficult part of the conversation – where the other person often starts reacting emotionally by shutting down, blaming, getting defensive, etc. – they avoid the last 8% of the conversation, which is the part that really needs to be said. What’s missed is the critical information and feedback an individual or organization needs to improve performance, grow and achieve objectives.


Before you start the conversation, be very clear with yourself about the Last 8% that you need to communicate, even if the other person doesn’t react well.  You can’t control how another person reacts, but you can ensure you say what needs to be said.


Having skillful difficult conversations is one of the key differentiators of great CEO’s and world class organizations. While having them is not easy, it is a skill that can be learned and mastered, and is something we teach in our Three Conversations of Leadership training.


The ability to have effective difficult conversations isn’t just a skill that’s needed in business, it’s also a critical skill in our personal lives!