Communicating in Difficult Situations

See also: Conflict Resolution

Most people want to avoid conflict and potentially stressful situations – this is human nature.   

People often find it easier to avoid communicating something that they think is going to be controversial or bad, putting off the communication and letting the situation fester. 

A manager may hold off telling an employee that their standard of work is unsatisfactory.  You may put off having that 'difficult' conversation with your partner, especially if it concerns some kind of wrongdoing, financial or emotional issues.  A child may put off telling their parents that they are struggling with classes at school. 

Most people can think of times when they have put off having that ‘difficult’ conversation, most people will also recognise that putting off the difficult conversation alleviates short-term anxiety.  However, constantly putting off difficult communication situations often leads to feelings of frustration, guilt, annoyance with oneself, anger, a reduction in self-confidence and ultimately more stress and anxiety.

By following some simple guidelines and using some well-tuned communication skills communicating in difficult situations becomes easier.

There are two distinct types of difficult conversation, planned and unplanned:

  • Planned conversations occur when the subject has been given thought, they are planned as the time, place and other circumstances have been arranged or are chosen for a reason.  Planned difficult conversations could include asking an employer for a pay-rise or perhaps telling your parents that you are leaving home to live somewhere else.   Although these situations are, by their nature, difficult they are controlled and as long as time has been taken to prepare and think properly about how others may react they can often end up being easier than imagined.
  • Unplanned difficult conversations take place on the spur of the moment; these are often fuelled by anger which can, in extreme cases, lead to aggression.  Our pages: What is Anger? and Dealing with Aggression cover these topics in more detail.  Often, after an unplanned difficult conversation we feel a surge of emotion – regret or shame if things didn't go too well or potentially a boost to self-esteem and confidence if they did.  After such encounters it is wise to reflect and learn from our experiences trying to find positives and ways of improving future unplanned difficult conversations.

Certain jobs and roles require difficult communication to be handled professionally, with empathy, tact, discretion and clarity.  Some examples are:

Politicians often have to communicate bad news, for example, failures in their departments, scandals, not meeting targets etc. As Politicians are in the public eye they may be judged by how well they communicate bad news.  They will worry about their electorate and the repercussions for their self-image, their political party and their country.  It is not unusual for Politicians to use ‘spin doctors’ and ‘public relation gurus’ who can advise, alleviate personal blame and find positives in potentially bad news. Another trick sometimes used by politicians is to coincide the release of bad news with some other, unrelated big news story, with the hope that media and public attention will be focused elsewhere.

Doctors and other Health Care Professionals may need to communicate bad or unexpected news to patients and relations of patients, for example, diagnosis and prognosis.  Such professionals will have received training and will have worked in practise scenarios to help them to deliver such news effectively and sensitively.

Police and other Law Enforcement Officers may need to communicate bad news to victims of crime or their family and friends.  Such professionals will have received at least basic training in delivering bad news.

Managers in organisations may need to communicate difficult information on several levels, to staff who are under-performing or if redundancies are necessary.  Managers may also need to report bad news upwards to directors or board members, perhaps profits are down or some arm of the organisation is failing.

Your Job. Whatever your line of work, there will be times when, you will need to be able to communicate difficult information effectively to others. This is an important employability skill, something that many employers will look for. You may be asked to give examples in a job interview or during some sort of appraisal or professional development programme.

See our section on Employability Skills for more information.

Emotion and Change

There are two main factors that make communication seem difficult: emotion and change.


People tend to look at emotions as being positive or negative.  Happiness is positive and therefore sadness must be negative, calmness is positive whereas stress and anxiety are negative.  Emotions are, however, a natural response to situations that we find ourselves in, and the only time that we need to be concerned is when we consistently feel emotions inappropriate to our current situation.  Emotions are therefore not positive or negative but appropriate or inappropriate. 

When faced with unexpected news we may find ourselves becoming upset, frustrated, angry – or perhaps very happy and excited.  It is helpful to recognise how we react to things emotionally and to think of different ways in which emotions can be controlled if necessary.  Similarly, if we need to communicate information which may have an emotional effect on another person, it is helpful to anticipate what that effect might be and to tailor what we say or write accordingly.

See our pages: Emotional Intelligence and The Art of Tact and Diplomacy for more on being aware of your own, and other people's, emotions and how to deal with these sensitively.


Often difficult conversations are about some sort of change, for example, changes in your job or ways of doing things, changes in finances or health, changes in a relationship. It is important to remember that change is inevitable.

Our page Personal Change Management explains this in more detail.

Different people handle change in different ways, some respond very positively to a change in circumstances whereas others may only be able to see problems and difficulty at first.   If possible it is beneficial to think about the positive side of the change and the potential opportunities that it may bring. It is better for an individual’s well-being if they are able to embrace change as positively as possible, thus helping to minimise stress and anxiety.

See our page: What is Stress? which includes a list of the most stressful life events - these are mainly associated with change.

Advanced Communication Skills

Further Reading from Skills You Need

Our Communication Skills eBooks

Learn more about the key communication skills you need to be an effective communicator.

Our eBooks are ideal for anyone who wants to learn about or develop their communication skills, and are full of easy-to-follow practical information and exercises.

Dealing with Difficult Conversations

There has to be a balance between communicating something difficult and being as sensitive as possible to those concerned.  The skill set required to do this may seem somewhat contradictory as you may need to be both firm and gentle in your approach. 

Recommended skills include:

Information Gathering

Make sure you have your facts straight before you begin, know what you are going to say and why you are going to say it.  Try to anticipate any questions or concerns others may have and think carefully about how you will answer questions.

See our pages: Questioning and Question Types.

Being Assertive

Once you are sure that something needs to be communicated then do so in an assertive way. Do not find yourself backing down or changing your mind mid-conversation, unless of course there is very good reason to do so.

Visit our page: Assertiveness - Tips & Techniques for more information.

Being Empathic

Put yourself in the other person’s shoes and think about how they will feel about what you are telling them; how would you feel if the roles were reversed?  Give others time to ask questions and make comments.

See our page: What is Empathy?.

Being Prepared to Negotiate

Often a difficult situation requires a certain amount of negotiation, be prepared for this.  When negotiating, aim for a win-win outcome – that is, some way in which all parties can benefit.

See our pages What is Negotiation? and The Art of Tact and Diplomacy for more information.

Using Appropriate Verbal and Non-Verbal Language

Speak clearly avoiding any jargon that other parties may not understand, give eye contact and try to sit or stand in a relaxed way.  Do not use confrontational language or body language.

Our pages: Verbal Communication and Non-Verbal Communication provide more information about how to communicate effectively.


When stressed we tend to listen less well, try to relax and listen carefully to the views, opinions and feelings of the other person/people.  Use clarification and reflection techniques to offer feedback and demonstrate that you were listening.

Our pages Listening Skills, Reflecting and Clarifying can help.

Staying Calm and Focused

Communication becomes easier when we are calm, take some deep breaths and try to maintain an air of calmness, others are more likely to remain calm if you do.  Keep focused on what you want to say, don’t deviate or get distracted from the reason that you are communicating.

See our pages, Dealing with Stress and Relaxation Techniques for some tips and advice on how to keep calm.