Scared of Tough ConversationsMarch 30 , 2022

Tips for saying what needs to be said.


  • Using a desire to “be liked” as the centerpiece for interactions is a recipe for being a doormat and a terrible co-worker or manager.
  • Try reframing conflict as “doing the right thing” to find more courage and energy to step in.
  • A simple four-phrase framework can help conversations go well when your brain is fuzzy with adrenaline.

Q: I’m terrible at conflict. Any time I need to tell someone something I think they won’t like, I freeze up. I lose sleep for days beforehand. I rationalize every possible reason why the problem will fix itself, but obviously, it doesn’t. How can I get better at having these tough conversations?

A: Anxiety in the face of potential conflict is something I (Becca) am painfully familiar with. I grew up in a family that held getting along as one of its highest values. And as a white woman, society gave me the unmistakable message that being “liked” by everyone was the foundation of my value as a human.

But using a desire to “be liked” as the centerpiece for my interactions with others was — no surprise — a great recipe for being a doormat, and uncoincidentally, a terrible manager or co-worker. I too let bad situations go on too long and when I finally did speak up, it was either weirdly passive-aggressive or the point was so buried in positioning myself as “nice” that the message was missed.

So what’s a conflict-averse person to do?

Reframing Conflict

First, it may help to reframe “conflict.” For me, recognizing the difference between being “nice” (acting agreeable and pleasing to ensure everyone gets along) and “kind” (doing the right thing with compassion in your heart) was powerful. When I could frame speaking up as “doing the right thing,” I found more courage and energy to do it. For more on this, try Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes are High by Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, Ron McMillan, and Al Switzler.

But just reframing conflict still left me panicky. I knew speaking up was the right thing to do, but I still lay awake at night crafting the perfect phrases to minimize the loathing I feared would be directed at me. This is where having a go-to tool for framing the conversation saved me. I use the Non-Violent Communication Model because it is four short fill-in-the-blank statements that I can remember even when my brain goes fuzzy with adrenaline.

Using the Non-Violent Communication Model

The Non-Violent Communication Model’s four statements are:

  • “I observe…” The key is to share only observations as they would be captured on video, without commentary. This starts the conversation in an emotionally neutral (ish) space.
  • “I feel…” How do you feel about the situation? There’s no space for creating stories about the other parties’ motives or intentions here — just your feelings about what you observed.
  • “I need…” This is where you articulate your own goal or intention (hint: this is not what they need to change. Think “I need to feel confident that…” not, “You need to do X.”).
  • “My request…” What are you asking for from the other person that is both achievable and reasonable to request?

I usually add a last question: “How can I help make this happen?”

Taken together, your statement might sound something like this: “[I observe…] I noticed that for the last few board meetings, you’ve sent me your materials after the deadline I gave you. That meant that I had to stay late and rush around to meet my own deadline. [I feel…] This caused me a lot of stress because I don’t work well under pressure and I was worried about not being able to meet my own deadline for my boss. I also felt bad because I missed an important commitment to my family. [I need…] I need to be able to plan my week and be confident that I can meet my commitments at work and at home. [My request is…] What can we put in place to make sure you meet the deadline? How can I help?”

This model works for me because there is no space to attribute any intentions or character flaws to them: “You’re a disorganized mess” or “You obviously don’t value my time.” It stays focused on my feelings and needs and minimizes the other person’s defensiveness (a.k.a. their likelihood of being mad at me).

In a true non-violent communication model, both parties are trained in these questions or there’s a facilitator to ensure both parties are empathetically listening and honestly expressing themselves. That’s a big ask of random work colleagues who may be at (ahem) varying levels of emotional intelligence. Sometimes I’ve run into people who break all the rules and are neither kind nor focused on their needs instead of my flaws, but I’ve generally had great luck with this model. Most importantly, it — along with reframing conflict as “doing the right thing” — has goosed me into having the conversations I need to have when I need to have them. May the same be true for you.

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