How to to begin a difficult conversation

Delivering bad news and managing conflict with co-workers, executives and clients is never enjoyable. Try these starters to open up a dialogue.

Despite having read “Crucial Conversations” (McGraw-Hill) more than once and attending countless presentations on delivering bad news and managing conflict, I’ve never been very skilled in this area. I dread these types of personal interactions, and I’m ashamed to admit that I do what I can to get out of them—at home and at work.

But recently I was in a situation where I could no longer avoid a difficult conversation. So I did what many other writers, PR pros and corporate communicators would do: I treated the conversation as a writing assignment. What started out as a blog post about everything that I wanted to cover turned into a script where I could role-play the entire conversation.

What I discovered was that the act of writing a script helped clarify my thoughts and find the right words for the conversation. It was truly an “Aha!” moment when the solution to this long-standing problem suddenly became clear and obvious.

The most difficult part of my scripting exercise was figuring out how to start the conversation. (Which should come as no surprise, considering that most writers struggle with leads and opening lines) So I came up with several starters for my conversation, along with starters that might apply to other difficult discussions:

1. “Can we talk about something that I think will help us work better together?”

2. “If I understand you correctly, you’re trying to accomplish x, y and z. I’m wondering if there’s a different way to approach this. Perhaps we can …”

3. “I’m a little confused about what occurred and why it occurred. I want to discuss it with you to see how we can move this forward.”

4. “I understand that XXXXX happened.”

5. “I’d like to see if we might reach a better understanding about XXXXX. I really want to hear your thoughts and share my perspective as well.”

6. “It’s a little bit awkward for me to approach you about this, but …”

7. “I like having you on the team because you raise important issues and feel strongly about them. I’d like to talk you about whether you’re having the impact you want to have.”

8. “I’d like to give you some feedback about XXXXX.”

9. “I want to understand what we’re trying to accomplish with this project. Can you go back and explain the reasoning behind it?”

10. “We’ve worked together pretty well for a long time. I don’t know how to talk about what went wrong in yesterday’s meeting when your view of what happened is so different from mine.”

11. “I think we have different perceptions about XXXXX. I’d like to hear your thinking on this.”

How about you, Ragan readers? Do you have any conversation starters to add to this list?

Laura Hale Brockway is a regular contributor to and PR Daily. Read more of her posts on writing, editing and corporate life at

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