Mastering Hard Conversations – The Art of Self-Reflection

image of young blonde woman thinking at her laptop. She is wearing a white shirt and suit blazer.Conflict in the workplace is inevitable. Whether you like it or not, there will be times when you must navigate uncomfortable conversations and make tough decisions. The first step in becoming better at this is becoming good at the art of self-reflection. That is, understanding what’s going on for you in relation to the situation in terms of your thoughts, emotions, and motivations. When you are clear about your own perspective and what’s driving you, you can engage with the other person more effectively.

The “Circle of Self-Reflection” is a framework derived from the work of social psychologist Sherod Miller, that allows you to reflect and gain insight into what is going on for you when you find yourself in a conflict or having to make a tough decision. It allows you to unpack the chaos and discomfort and gain clarity about what’s going on and how you might approach the situation.

Let’s consider each of the elements:

  • Sensory data: Sensory data is your sensory information – the things you see and observe. It’s what you read, what you’re told, what you hear, and what you touch, smell and taste.
  • Thoughts: Thoughts are how you’re thinking about the issue and the meaning you make of your sensory data. In addition to being shaped by the sensory data, our thoughts are shaped by our values, sense of identity, biases and expectations.
  • Emotions: Emotions are your feelings about the situation – your spontaneous physiological responses to your experiences. Sensory data and thoughts create emotions. Emotions drive your behaviour, whether or not you are conscious of it. Universal emotions include happiness, sadness, anger, fear, disgust, and surprise. In a conflict you will experience a range of emotions. Often intense emotions such as anger mask deeper underlying emotions such as fear, disappointment, or sadness.
  • Wants: Wants are your motivations. What you want for the organisation. What you want for the team. What you want for yourself.
  • Actions: Actions can be historical, current, or future. Your actions will have played a part in the situation. Either what you have done or what you haven’t done!

When you find yourself involved in a conflict or misunderstanding with another person, or have to make a tough decision, you can use the Circle of Reflection to understand what’s going on for you, and gain clarity around your options for action. To help unpack your perspective of situation you are essentially asking yourself a series of questions:

  1. What is my sensory data?
  2. What am I thinking?
  3. How am I feeling?
  4. What do I want?
  5. What have I done (or not done) that contributing to the situation?

Write down your reflections and ideas under the different headings. Start with a thought or an emotion. Then ponder what is the sensory data that’s driving that emotion or thought and write that down. Then reflect on your thoughts and try and understand which of your values is coming into play? How is your sense of identity showing up in your thinking? Then move over to list what you really want. After a short time you will have a lot of information to work from.

Some questions to explore when self-reflecting

Sensory data

  • What are people saying about the situation?
  • What have I read, heard, or observed that is relevant?
  • What are the facts that need to be discussed?


  • What are you thinking about the other person / the situation?
  • What are you saying to yourself?
  • What assumptions are you making about the situation?
  • What did you expect to happen? What gave rise to those expectations?
  • Which of your values or sense of identity is being threatened here?


  • How are you feeling about the situation? (A useful list of words describing emotions is attached).
  • What different emotions have come into play for you in relation to this?


  • What do you want for the business / organisation?
  • What do you want for your team?
  • What do you want personally?
  • What do you want from the other person?
  • What do you want for the other person?
  • What do you want for clients or customers?
  • What do you want for other stakeholders?


  • What have you done in the past?
  • What are you doing now? How is that going?
  • What might you do in the future?

Balanced Curve offers programs that help managers and leaders feel more confident about having challenging conversations; become more self-aware and better at self-regulating emotion; improve their listening, questioning and speaking skills; enhance their ability to self-reflect and step into the shoes of others; develop strategies and tactics for managing conflict; and create more collaborative, accountable, and high-performing teams.

Mark Rosenberg