Having Difficult Conversations

How you can navigate them effectively and with confidence


Having a conversation is a fundamental aspect of all human interaction but not all conversations are easy. In fact, some conversations can be exceptionally challenging, leaving participants feeling frustrated, misunderstood, or even hurt. In this article, we will explore factors that contribute to the difficulty of conversations and help explain why they can be so challenging to navigate.

While different ways of communicating may contribute to the difficulty of conversations, such as an individual’s preference to express opinions in a more direct and assertive way, while others are more reserved and prefer to take a softer approach, there are other factors that can lead to misunderstandings and difficulties in communication.

Misunderstandings or Misinterpretations

One of the primary reasons conversations become difficult is the presence of misunderstandings or misinterpretations. These occur when participants in a conversation do not fully understand each other’s words, intentions, or perspectives. Misunderstandings can come from various sources:

  1. Lack of Clarity: Sometimes, people do not express their thoughts or feelings clearly, or explain things well. leaving room for ambiguity. This lack of clarity can lead to confusion and misinterpretation.
  2. Assumptions: People often assume they know what someone means without asking and they make assumptions about what they mean, based on their own experiences and beliefs. These assumptions can lead to misinterpretations and misunderstanding.
  3. Non-Verbal Cues: Misunderstandings can also arise from misinterpretation of non-verbal cues, such as body language, tone of voice, or facial expressions. A simple gesture such as a frown can send an unintended message.

To reduce the potential for misunderstandings in difficult conversations, it is essential for all participants to actively listen, ask clarifying questions, and clearly express their own thoughts.

When People Feel Strongly About a Subject

Strong emotions can make conversations difficult. When people care deeply about a topic, it can be challenging for them to stay calm and engage in a calm and rational way. Here’s why:

  1. Emotional Reactions: Strong emotions such as anger, fear, or sadness, can make people defensive or aggressive, or even emotionally overwhelmed which will impact their ability to have a calm conversation.
  2. Confirmation Bias: When people feel strongly about something, they tend to look for information that supports and confirms their existing beliefs. This can make it more difficult for them to consider alternative viewpoints.
  3. Inflexibility: Strong emotional attachment to a particular viewpoint can make people less willing to compromise or find common ground, making resolution difficult

To address this challenge, participants must stay calm, be aware of their emotions and be empathetic to the other person. Creating a safe and non-judgmental space for the conversation can also help participants express their emotions and perspective.

Power Imbalance

Power dynamics play a significant role in shaping the difficulty of a conversation. When one person has more power than the other,  it can create an atmosphere where one participant feels marginalized or disadvantaged leading to unequal discussion.

Key elements of power imbalances in conversations include:

  1. Hierarchy: Conversations involving supervisors and direct reports or individuals with different levels of authority can be challenging. The direct report may feel hesitant to voice their opinions or concerns because of their supervisor’s authority.
  2. Privilege: Conversations involving privilege and discrimination can be particularly difficult. Those with privilege may struggle to acknowledge their advantage, while those facing discrimination may find it challenging to express their experiences and may feel unheard.
  3. Fear of Repercussions: When there is a power imbalance, the less powerful individual may fear retaliation or negative consequences for speaking up such as losing their job.

To reduce power imbalances, leaders and individuals in positions of power should encourage open communication, actively listen to those with less authority, encourage their participation, and take steps to ensure their perspectives are valued.


Difficult conversations are an inevitable part of life, but understanding the key factors that contribute to their difficulty can help individuals navigate them more effectively. Whether it’s addressing misunderstandings, managing strong emotions, or mitigating power imbalances, developing the skills to handle these challenges can lead to more productive and constructive dialogues.

By promoting open and respectful communication, even the most challenging conversations can result in positive outcomes.

Other Resources

Thank you for reading CFI’s guide to Having Difficult Conversations

To further enhance your knowledge and help advance your career, CFI recommends the following resources:

See our courses on Having Difficult Conversations and Managing Conflict as well as Leading with Emotional Intelligence and Self-Awareness.

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