Why your tough conversations can head off track

Jimmy Burroughes
4 min readJun 23, 2022

Tough Conversations are an essential skill for teams to build trust and connect effectively. Without it, engagement, productivity and team results are usually pretty limited.

One of the challenges with tough conversations is that it’s difficult to know how they are going to turn out. From a neuroscience perspective, tough conversations tend to bring up our fight, flight or freeze responses. The other party can also feel like a cornered animal, so your skills in navigating these conversations as the leader are ones to practice and work on. I can promise you that they get easier with more practice.

In reality, as a leader, you are probably going to be having more of these conversations than most, but that doesn’t necessarily make them easier. Probably the biggest single piece of advice we can offer is to focus on trying to imagine that the problem/issue necessitating the tough conversation, is a painting in a gallery and that you and the other person in the tough conversation are both looking at the painting on the wall together, trying to understand and interpret it, before making a plan to solve it. This approach works better than the demonization or blame game, which can be where many tough conversations can end up.

To help you with your planning, we have identified the four common directions a conversation might head that could catch you off guard when the other person reacts like this. Forewarned is forearmed.

Diminish — Sounds like — “This isn’t a problem, or it’s not as serious as you are making out”. Diminishers are often unable to accept the responsibility or magnitude of the situation you are concerned about. This can mean you need to have more facts and figures to hand in order to layout the impact of what you are talking about.

Disengage — sounds like, “This isn’t isn’t my problem”, or a shrug and silence. Often, people can respond this way if they are naturally introverted or their fight/flight response is to freeze. The key to planning for this response is in the early steps of the conversation where you clearly outline that this is a conversation to understand more about the situation and would like their perspective. Remember tough conversations are two-way and so they shouldn’t just be you shouting and raving about your point, but instead working together to solve whatever challenge has come up.

Distraction — sounds like — “You might want to talk about this, but look at this thing over here which we should be focussing on”. Distractors like to prevent your conversation from having focus. They survive by starting fires elsewhere which draw attention away from the issues at hand. Often they are extremely practiced at it and have survived for a long time by distracting.

Deflection — Sounds like — “This is your / someone else’s / anyone else’s fault, not mine”. You will probably see this response if your organization has a blame culture or if the other party is feeling defensive. You will hear the word But used a lot. They will seek to not accept their responsibility in the situation. Dealing with deflection relies on affirming questions that clarify their involvement.

Whilst knowing that these 4Ds might come up whilst you are having your tough conversations is useful, they can still catch you off guard. This is why having a framework you can follow can significantly reduce your anxiety about doing them, and create positive results from them. Remember, the key outcome from tough conversations is not just you sharing your point. It’s actually about understanding and then shifting the beliefs driving the behaviors causing the situation, whilst building greater trust in your relationship with the other person.

If you’d like some support with your approach to Tough Conversations without all the trial and error, or the anxiety that goes with them, please reach out and we’d love to help. We offer a 90-minute action-focused WoW Lab where over 600 participants have changed the game in the way they feel about and approach Tough Conversations.

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Speak soon,


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Jimmy Burroughes

Showing leaders and teams how to change their conversations to change their business performance results. jimmyburroughes.com