How to ACE an Unpleasant Discussion

unpleasantYou have to terminate a project. You have to tell a job candidate she didn’t get the job. You have to tell your boss—or a client—you are unable to take on a new initiative. Whew! These may not be crucial conversations, but if they leave you feeling uncomfortable or if they place stress on key relationships, it is important that you learn how to handle them well. At the same time, it will cut down on the stress these discussions can create.

Here is a strategy and a format you can follow when you are faced with an unpleasant discussion:

Take care of it promptly. It is easy to put difficult tasks or conversations on the bottom of your to-do list. But the longer it sits there, the more of your mental or emotional energy it can drain. At the same time, people are waiting for your answer, or the same behavior continues that you want to change, so things are either on hold or getting worse. The sooner you tackle this conversation and put it to rest, the sooner you can move on to more productive endeavors.

But not too soon. If you are in the heat of the moment, feeling emotional or angry, it might be best to wait until you cool off. Be sure you have all the facts. Be sure you have considered all options. Take a little time to think it through and plan your approach. If it is a really sticky situation, you could talk it over with a trusted colleague, jot down a few talking points, or rehearse what you plan to say.

Choose the right medium, time, and place. We have all heard of texted break-ups or pink slips on Friday afternoons. When the message and the medium are mismatched, we can add insult to injury. Hurt or angry feelings get ignored, people can feel disrespected and the whole conversations spirals out of control. If the situation is a business one, email might be fine. But ask yourself if a phone conversation wouldn’t be better. And if it involves strong feelings or an important relationship, try to arrange a face to face meeting. Pick a time when all parties will be fresh and relatively less stressed. Choose a neutral spot if possible, and definitely a place where privacy is possible.

Start with a positive intent. Take a moment to connect with the person you are giving bad news or a concern to. You can thank them for taking time to talk with you. You can express appreciation or liking for the person or the relationship you have shared. You can let them know you will continue to value them (if that is true.) Keep this part brief, but make sure you start with some kind of positive intent if you do value the relationship.

Give fair warning. A neutral phrase that bad news is coming can be helpful, as a transition and a warning. Something like, “I’m afraid I have some bad news…” or “I’ve hesitated to bring this up, but now I really need to let you know how I feel” can at least give the person some indication that the conversation is taking a turn toward the serious. It’s the equivalent of “Are you sitting down?”

State the facts plainly and neutrally. Generally I would advise stating the bottom line first, then giving 2 or 3 reasons or facts about it. You could reverse the order and start with the facts that lead to the bottom line, but I think people are just waiting for that bottom line so why not start with it? “We won’t be able to publish your book, and these are the reasons….” Give one, two or three reasons, but no more. Your listener won’t be ready for a long list of reasons, and after three they start to feel like excuses anyway.

Restate the decision firmly but politely. Restate the bottom line to be sure it is clear, “So let’s be clear that this project will be terminated, effective today.” People tend to remember what they hear last, so be sure your last words are clear and definite. Some of us have a hard time saying no, but you will feel better for having been straightforward, and ultimately it’s so much better than waffling.

Reinforce your positive intentions. If possible, end the discussion on a positive note. If there is hope for a different outcome in the future, say so but be aware the person will remember you said it “might” be possible, so don’t promise something unrealistic. Instead, thank the person for their understanding and end with a hope for a continued relationship. Something like, “While I understand you are disappointed, I appreciate your dedication to this project and hope we will have other opportunites to work together in the future.”

If you care about people and key relationships, it will be worth your effort to learn how to ace these unpleasant discussions, making yourself clear, but offering the news in a neutral, professional way. Best of all, you will become known as a strong communicator who does not shy away from tough discussions.


Author Gail Zack Anderson, founder of Applause, Inc. is a Twin Cities-based consultant who provides coaching and workshops for effective presentations, facilitation skills for trainers and subject matter experts, and positive communication skills for everyone.  She can be reached at

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