Bill Hackos, PhD
Vice President, Comtech Services, Inc.

As documentation managers, we are frequently asked to take part in stressful conversations. We must bring bad news to our employees, handle confused or dissatisfied internal and external customers, and have difficult conversations with our own management. Holly Weeks in the article “Taking the Stress out of Stressful Conversations” in the July-August 2001 issue of the Harvard Business Review describes a number of tactics that can be used by managers to defuse difficult conversations.

She describes difficult conversations that we all have had and gives advice about managing the conversations to mitigate damage to either of the participants. She points out that as a manager you want to use the conversation to accomplish your goals rather than win debating points. Yet when our emotions come into play, many times we forget what we want to accomplish and take part in a conflict of wills, forgetting why we entered into the conversation in the first place.

Weeks feels that if possible we should prepare for our difficult conversations. But sometimes conversations heat up and become stressful unexpectedly. She has identified three ingredients that can make stressful conversations succeed.

Clarity. In a stressful conversation you need to tell people clearly what you mean. Many of us try to mask bad news to mitigate its effects to others and ourselves in such a way that the meaning becomes unclear. Many times in a heated conversation we wrap our words up with our emotions so that our intentions are hidden. This puts a burden on the listener to understand the underlying meaning of our words. As the speaker, it should be our responsibility to communicate clearly rather than the listener’s responsibility to interpret.

Neutrality. Using a neutral tone helps stressful conversations. Problems stated in a neutral tone rather than wrapped in strong feelings can defuse a difficult situation. Sometimes you may be able to restate a problem clearly and in a neutral tone that someone else has stated very emotionally. Weeks uses the example: “Houston, we have a problem” as a very neutral tone in a difficult situation.

Temperance. Imperatives, threats, and ultimatums have no place in stressful conversations. The English language provides many ways to make the same point. Confrontational approaches rarely help us toward our goals.


“Taking the Stress out of Stressful Conversations”
Holly Weeks
Harvard Business Review July-August 2001

Order the article