We Need to Talk

Skills for Tough Conversations

Dealing with conflict can be tough, no matter when or where it happens. You may find yourself frustrated with your roommate, at odds with a loved one, or in a disagreement with someone you have to work with. Emotions flare up, tensions rise, and, more often than not, everyone leaves feeling worse.

It doesn’t have to be that way. It could be much easier if you use these skills.

Before the Conversation

Students thinking about having a conversation

Deal with yourself first

  • The only person you can control is you. If you go into the conversation with wrong intentions, then you are going to get a bad result.
  • Ask yourself, “What do I really want from this conversation for myself and this other person?” Go into these conversations with these motives.
  • Remember that, in most situations, you have contributed to the problem, even if it’s by not saying something sooner.

Go on the record early. Don’t hold it in until you snap

  • It is much easier to address things when they’re small as opposed to waiting until they’re big.
  • Make sure to talk it out. Passive aggression never helps.

Acknowledge the story you’re telling yourself

  • We tell a story when something happens and our emotions are based on that story, even if we don’t realize it.
  • Reframe your thinking to consider the situation from multiple perspectives.
  • Write down notes. What bothers you? Why?
  • Give them the benefit of the doubt. Try to understand their actions. What else could be going on? Why would a reasonable decent person do this?
  • Don’t make assumptions without talking to the person first. Don’t ascribe intent based on the story you’ve made in your head.

Brainstorm acceptable and unacceptable outcomes

  • The aim is not to win or determine who is wrong. The goal is to reach the best possible outcome for everyone.
  • Identify how you can meet in the middle. When disagreements happen, it often turns into a who’s right battle instead of learning the other person’s perspective and resolving the issue.
  • Think critically about your contributions to the issue.
  • What is good for the other person? Think about it from their perspective.

Set a respectful tone

  • Don’t make it bigger than it needs to be.
  • Ask: “Can we talk for 5 minutes?”
  • Schedule a time that works for everyone.

Stay aware of your own engagement

  • Are you causing communication to breakdown by withdrawing, getting defensive, or pretending to listen.
  • Step back, take a break, and get into the right frame of mind.

During the Conversation

Students having a conversations

Speak about issue in absolute facts or your feelings

  • Don’t generalize, be specific, and use irrefutable statements.
  • Lead with observations and questions, not conclusions.
  • Demonstrate that your purpose is to understand, not accuse.
  • Keep reminding yourself of your motive.

Help them feel safe

  • These conversations tend to go wrong because the other person feels they are trying to be controlled or that you have ulterior motives, so they get defensive.
  • Work to find acceptable outcomes that everyone can move toward and build upon.
  • Apologize and take ownership of your mistakes, which can include how you contributed to the issue. Be sincere.
  • Compromise. Remember, this is not about winning. It is about crafting acceptable outcomes.

Ask about their experience

  • Ask questions to dig deeper: “What are your thoughts?” “How do you see it?” “What’s your perspective?”

Listen actively

  • Watch Active Listening 101.
  • Listen to the other person and make them feel understood.
  • Don’t interrupt, debate, or get defensive.

De-Escalation of the Conversation

Students finishing up a conversation

Watch for early warning signs

  • Pay attention to signs from yourself or the other person to see if it is not going well.
  • Watch for changes in body language, breathing, volume, or tone.
  • Don’t be afraid to call a timeout and have the conversation later on.

Catch yourself

  • If you are verbally attacking, demeaning, or getting louder than the other person, then take a second to ask yourself, “what do I really want from this conversation for myself and my relationship to this other person?”
  • Keep your motive in mind.
  • Remember, in most situations you have contributed to the problem.
Students shaking

Additional Resources

Other ways to get skills:

Do’s & Don’ts during Tough Conversations


  • Acknowledge your story and write it down
  • Describe the facts
  • Lead with observations and questions, not conclusions
  • Let the other person know that you understand them
  • Step away if things aren’t going well for you or the other person


  • Make it about winning and losing
  • Interrupt, debate, or get defensive
  • Hold it in until you snap
  • Be afraid to apologize
  • Have the conversation via text or DM