How to stay mindful during difficult conversations

As a leader we have to engage in difficult conversations on a regular basis, no matter how easy going we think we are. There’s asking people to do things they don’t want to, saying no to requests and conversations around performance management; all of these things have the potential to turn into difficult conversations. The question is, how do you remain mindful during these difficult conversations so you can thoughtfully engage with the person, but still get the right outcomes for everyone involved?


Difficult conversations - mindful Leadership. Rob Hills.
Difficult conversations are not uncommon in the workplace.


Evolution has basically equipped us with two options when it comes to conflict; fight or flight. When faced with conflict our brain automatically starts preparing us physiologically to either engage our enemy or retreat to safety. Blood begins to head towards our limbs and large muscle groups so we are ready to run (leg muscles) or fight (chest, arms and legs). The heart starts racing and our palms begin to sweat. Our breathing rate increases.


To learn how mindful leadership can reduce stress in your workplace click here.


This may have been useful in the days of the dinosaurs, we really only had two options, but in a modern world there aren’t too many prehistoric predators roaming our offices (despite what you may think of some of your colleagues). There is actually a third option – use our mind. Unfortunately we haven’t yet evolved enough as a species to get a physiological response for increased brain function during times of stress. So at the time when you really need your brain to function at it’s peak, you can barely string two sentences together because your body is busily preparing you for good old fight or flight.


What about mindfulness?


Using mindfulness during difficult conversations gives us the opportunity to override our body’s natural responses so we can be more calm and more focused. This state of heightened consciousness allows us to become more aware of what is causing our negative thoughts and emotions. Being aware of this negativity enables us to self regulate to a more productive state and have a better conversation.


Our subjective minds have a tendency to take over when we are in a negative state and go into ‘story mode’; our brains make up stories to fill in gaps so we can make better sense of what is happening in our world. The problem with these stories is they are often one sided and inflammatory and make difficult conversations even harder.


The first step in become more mindful during difficult conversations is to notice when it starts heading down a negative track and realising that you want to get off that train as quickly as possible! For some people it’s noticing the physiological response; the breath, the racing heart or the feeling of anxiety. For others it’s a voice in their head that says ‘this isn’t going how I expected it to’. At it’s worst it becomes painfully obvious when the build up of emotional energy explodes out of our bodies in the form of yelling, insults or aggressive behaviour.


To learn why you don’t need to be a monk to be mindful click here


Noticing these thoughts and emotions before they do any damage can be half the battle so make sure you give yourself credit when you notice early. Try taking a few deep, calming breaths to help regulate your thoughts and emotions. Make sure you stay present to the conversation, but keep focused on slowing your breath and staying calm.


What do we really want?


Our overall goal in these situations should be to respond, not react. However, this is difficult if we are not able to regulate those negative thoughts and emotions. There is a great quote by Victor Frankl that says “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom”. Give yourself the opportunity to choose your response instead of giving in to your reactions.


Mindful Leadership Rob Hills
Our goal during during difficult conversations is to respond, not react


Now that you are calmer and more mindful try and negate some of these stories by asking yourself a couple of key clarifying questions;

  • What is your intention for this argument? Is it to be right? Or is there a bigger picture?
  • How will this conversation affect your working relationship if it is not handled correctly?
  • Will this matter a year from now? Often in the heat of battle, we can’t see the forest for the trees, so maintaining perspective is tough. Taking a longer-term view gives us perspective to know whether this is important in the big scheme of things.
  • How would this look from the other person’s perspective? How have you contributed to this conflict? Stephen Covey says we should “seek first to understand, before being understood”. Use your active listening skills to find out what is really at the heart of the issue for the other person (hint: sometimes it’s not just the words they are saying).
  • What is the right thing to do in this situation? This powerful question should give you clarification on whether you back down or stand your ground. You need to choose your battles, but do it for the right reason.


Could difficult conversations be opportunities?


At this point it might be useful to think of this conversation as an opportunity for you to practice your communication skills and staying more mindful. That subtle mindset shift can often be enough to redirect your energy away from hostility to the challenge of communicating more thoughtfully.


Hopefully you will find these ideas useful when you find yourself in difficult conversations. Don’t forget these skills are like a muscle that will need to be exercised regularly if you want to improve. You may encounter hiccups along the way, but be gentle with yourself and others and keep trying. Remember, practice makes perfect!


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