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Do you hide from difficult conversations?

Like it or not, tough talks in the workplace cannot be avoided. Here are some ways you can prepare for the inevitable.

We have all had these thoughts at some time or other in order to avoid confrontation in the workplace:

  • “I don’t want to make any waves”
  • “I might look stupid”
  • “I might be punished for speaking up”
  • “It really was only a minor thing”

These are just a few of the reasons why we don’t speak up. None of us enjoys having an uncomfortable conversation. We find it both stressful and difficult to give or receive negative information.

If it’s so uncomfortable having hard conversations, why not just avoid them? Because, unless it’s a minor matter, the problem doesn’t just go away. It festers.

A wound is a bit painful to fix with antiseptic and bandages, but it heals. Ignored, it worsens and infects other areas as well. It’s the same when it comes to work difficulties. If ignored, working relationships deteriorate and others in the team can become infected. As a result, an avoided dispute becomes a performance and risk management problem.

McPhee Andrewartha co-founder Graham Andrewartha has crafted a day long workshop titled The SHIFT Method. This is the neuroscience approach to managing hard talk. To learn more, don’t miss out on McPhee Andrewartha’s upcoming ‘Difficult Conversations’ workshops in Sydney, Melbourne and Adelaide. 

Central to the SHIFT approach is the communication tool, “Influence Dimensions”, which has over 50,000 users and is profiled in two influential leadership texts be understood or be overlooked and Developing Management Skills.

The workshop focuses on shifting perspectives around difficult conversations in order to:

  • help you get what we actually want from these conversations;
  • adopt a new mindset and set of behaviours in five steps to achieve effective communication; and
  • help you to sort, harness, influence, focus, and test through your interactions.

difficult conversations

 1. SORT

The first step to effective communication is sorting yourself out through preparation. Every hard conversation is an opening up of ourselves. Make sure you will be safe to share your thoughts and to be a little vulnerable.

A good conversation protects, connects and enables a little learning.

A step in the right direction is creating your Influence Dimensions ID profile. The five-page profile is your personal map of the neuroscience of your communication patterns. It shows your approach to relationships with others.

The Influence Dimensions profile works by capturing the mirror neurons unconsciously displayed in your words. These neurons help us understand other peoples’ intentions and emotions within milliseconds, so we can quickly tune in to or even mimic them. Mirror neurons serve an evolutionary purpose, being based on ancient flight or fight reactions.

Many studies affirm that emotions are contagious. From this perspective, “getting on the same wavelength” is not just a figure of speech.


The next step is harnessing your competencies. Make eye contact, smile, shake hands, and touch in an appropriate way. All of these actions build connectivity and increase safety for both of you in the conversation. Most importantly, you need to listen.

Use everything in your skillset that you know about yourself and the other person to make the conversation as familiar and aligned as possible. Harness your tone and presentation. Assume that the other person might know something you don’t. Then discover what that is.


How can you most effectively build trust and influence? Trust can be rebuilt, even when it may have been seriously damaged.

Credibility, reliability and authenticity can be established using your Influence Dimensions communication knowledge. Two different things come into play when you use this communications knowledge – the perception the other person has of you, which you can influence; and your self-interest, which is what you get out of the conversation.


Focus on the most important issue that you want to address, avoiding all else. Sometimes this can feel like walking on eggshells, so it’s important to keep it simple and clear.

Here is a template for keeping the conversation on topic and ensuring that you say what you need to:

  • Maintain personal ownership of the problem. When you’re upset and frustrated, it’s important to recognise that this is your problem, not the other person’s. You may feel that your boss or co-worker is the source, but resolving your frustration is your immediate concern. Effective conflict resolution requires accountability for our own actions and feelings.
  • Succinctly describe your problem in terms of behaviours, consequences and feelings. A useful model for remembering how to state your concern effectively is: “I have a problem. When you do X, the result is Y, and I feel Z”.
  • Encourage a two-way discussion. It’s important to establish a problem-solving climate by inviting the respondent to express his or her opinions and ask questions. There may be a reasonable explanation for another person’s disturbing behaviour. As a rule of thumb, the longer the initiator’s opening statement, the longer it will take the two parties to work through their problem.
  • Manage the agenda. Approach multiple or complex problems incrementally. This is one way of shortening your opening statement. Rather than raising a series of issues all at once, focus initially on a simple or rudimentary problem. Then, as you gain greater appreciation for the other party’s perspective and share some problem-solving success, you can discuss more challenging issues.
  • Focus on commonalities as the basis for requesting a change. Most disputants share at least some personal and organisational goals, believe in many of the same fundamental principles of management and operate under similar constraints. These commonalities can serve as a useful starting point for generating solutions.
  • Give some consideration to the source of your concern. What caused your concern in the first place? If it’s personal differences, then address perceptions and expectations. If it’s information deficiencies, address misinformation and misrepresentation. If it’s role incompatibility, define goals and responsibilities. Or, if it’s environmental stress, then consider resource scarcity and uncertainty.


Follow up. Adapt. Modify. Was the hard conversation reasonably successful?

Repeat the understandings at the end of your conversation. Look for and seize on the first opportunity to compliment the other person on how they followed your agreement, then review in a few weeks. Did the conversation achieve a lasting change? Do you need to repeat, amend your approach, or try a different strategy altogether?

The SHIFT program allows you to modify your skills by participating in a highly interactive train-the-trainer workshop designed for HR and learning and development professionals.

You will learn how to:

  • have confidence in starting a hard conversation;
  • reduce resistance;
  • avoid the conversation escalating into bad feelings and conflict; and
  • become an expert at having an influential conversation with a wide range of people.

By completing this workshop, you will become an accredited user of the Influence Dimensions instrument published in Developing Management Skills. We will also provide you with a complete SHIFT workshop guide to let you facilitate your own workshops in your organisation to train managers and staff in the process.


Reserve your place or learn more about the workshop, contact McPhee Andrewartha on 1300 856 480 or

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