Mastering Elephants – How to have a Hard Conversation

Effective leaders have “hard conversations” about accountability and performance.   They address the “Elephants in the Room”.   When they don’t have these “hard conversations” and fail to talk things through, problems fester, morale suffers and productivity drops, while the quality of decision making is affected as people fail to collaborate and communicate.

In spite of the fact that we all appreciate this, we often avoid or delay having the hard conversations. Why is that?

When I ask people “what makes hard conversations hard?” there are a couple of common responses:

“They’re risky”. “They involve emotions”. “I don’t feel in control, so I prefer to avoid the situation”

Or, a less common response is:

“I don’t find having them hard; I just don’t do them very well”.

The common theme is that people don’t feel comfortable managing the emotion that comes into play so they don’t go there or, if they do, they often fail to manage their emotions and, consequently, don’t get a satisfactory outcome.

So how do you close the gap between knowing you should have the hard conversation and going ahead and having it and getting a good result?

I think there are 10 steps that enable you to have a conversation that enhances the relationship and delivers positive outcomes. The first 5 steps concern “Preparation”; the remaining 5 steps relate to “Engagement” during the conversation.


Step 1 – Stay calm. This is the threshold action if you are to have an effective hard conversation. If you don’t control your emotions, they control you and the result is usually not pretty. So you have to learn how to stay calm.

Step 2 – Reflect. Try to understand what’s going on for you and the outcomes you want. What emotions are you experiencing and why? What assumptions are you making?

Step 3 – Perspective Take – Step into their shoes. Try and understand what might be going on for the other person. What might they be thinking and feeling and what might they want to achieve?

Step 4 – Identify the “Common Ground”. Be conscious of the things you have in common. As any mediator will tell you, the common ground is where you find the way forward.

Step 5Anticipate questions and objections. Do the Boy Scout thing and “be prepared”. Walk into the conversation having thought through what the other person is likely to ask or say, and how you will respond so as to move the conversation forward.

Having the Conversation (repeat Step 1 – Stay calm!)

Step 6 – Listen Attentively. This is harder to do than you may think. However it is very difficult to influence another person until they feel they’ve been heard, so if you’re going to have a successful hard conversation, you need to bring your “A game” in terms of listening to what the other person has to say.

Step 7 – Ask “open” questions. Asking the How, What, Where, When questions goes hand in hand with effective listening. Asking open questions enables you to better understand what’s going on for the other person as well as uncovering hidden assumptions that might be holding back agreement.

Step 8 – Explore solutions. Be creative. Flesh out the possibilities and keep an open mind about options for dealing with the situation. 

Step 9 – Speak with Clarity. Leave no room for false assumptions or interpretations. Explain what you are thinking and why (your data). Highlight what you want for yourself, for the other person, for the business and for the organization.   Make sure you say “I want you to be able to …”

Step 10 – Capture Agreed Actions. It’s always important to capture and confirm agreed actions in writing so there is no room for misunderstanding or for people to dishonour their commitments.

The challenge of hard conversations is closing the “knowing doing gap”. Practice is the best way to overcome it. Like learning to play piano or golf or any other high level skill, to become really good at hard conversations you’ve got to practice doing the activity correctly and often.

If you live in Sydney and would like to get better at having the hard conversations, I am running a one day intensive “Mastering Elephants – Having the Hard Conversations” workshop on Thursday 8 October at the Australian Institute of Company Directors, 20 Bond Street, Sydney between 8.45am – 5.00pm.

If you’d like more information, let me know: We are limiting the workshop to 12 people to ensure a high quality experience. The cost for the one day workshop plus two follow up one on one Executive Coaching sessions is $1,200 + GST.

Mark Rosenberg