From conflict to catalyst: Ten tips on navigating tough talks that drive organizational change

Janet Miller Evans
Janet Miller Evans
Jul 09 2024
5 min read
From conflict to catalyst: Ten tips on navigating tough talks that drive organizational change

Effective leaders are distinguished by their ability to transform difficult conversations into opportunities for growth. With over 30 years of experience across various industries, such as pharmaceuticals, logistics, and technology, I’ve led numerous teams and handled countless challenging conversations. Throughout my journey, I’ve learned that mastering these conversations is key to effective change management and organizational success. Today, as a leadership consultant and coach, I focus on this skill most with leaders.

The essence of difficult conversations

Difficult conversations are not just about addressing conflicts or delivering tough feedback. They are the catalysts that can transform your organization. These dialogues, when handled effectively, can foster growth and manage change, paving the way for a more engaged and motivated workforce. and managing change within any organization. These dialogues often involve addressing conflicts, delivering tough feedback, or discussing significant changes. At their core, these conversations are about effective communication—allowing people to express differing opinions and ideas constructively. Research shows that 70% of employees feel more engaged when they believe their opinions are heard and valued, making these conversations crucial for maintaining a motivated workforce.

Emotional intelligence as the foundation

Emotional intelligence is crucial when handling difficult conversations. Understanding and naming your emotions is the first step. Many people struggle with articulating their feelings, often confusing thoughts with emotions. To navigate these conversations effectively, leaders must first understand their emotional drivers and recognize patterns in their responses.

As a certified emotional intelligence coach, I emphasize the importance of self-awareness. Before engaging in a challenging dialogue, reflect on your feelings. Are you anxious, frustrated, or perhaps optimistic? Naming these emotions helps in regulating them, allowing you to approach the conversation with a clear and balanced mindset. According to a study by TalentSmart, 90% of top performers have high emotional intelligence, underlining its importance in effective leadership.

Techniques for effective communication

Preparation is key to successful communication. Before starting a difficult conversation, it’s important to understand your personal biases and emotional state. Ask yourself, what judgments or assumptions might you hold about the person or situation?

Creating a safe and open environment is essential. Encourage all participants to share their thoughts and feelings without fear of judgment. This involves active listening—truly hearing what the other person is saying and giving them space to articulate their perspectives. The power of pausing cannot be overstated. Allow moments of silence to let thoughts settle and ensure that everyone feels heard.

Handling conversations across different roles

Whether you are a leader or a team member, the baseline approach to difficult conversations remains the same: start with self-reflection. Leaders, however, have an added responsibility to set the tone for these interactions. Your energy, empathy, and ability to listen actively can significantly influence the outcome of the conversation. According to a Harvard Business Review article, leaders who effectively manage conversations can increase their team’s performance by up to 25%.

Specific skills for leaders

Leaders play a pivotal role in difficult conversations by modeling effective communication behaviors. Demonstrating empathy and showing genuine interest in the perspectives of others helps create an environment of trust. Active listening, validating others’ feelings, and ensuring everyone can speak are critical skills for leaders to cultivate.

The power of pausing

Pausing during conversations allows everyone to gather their thoughts and process information. Different individuals think at different speeds; some may need more time to articulate their responses. Respecting these pauses can lead to more thoughtful and meaningful exchanges. Research from the Journal of Applied Psychology shows that strategic pausing during conversations can improve communication outcomes by up to 40%.

Addressing and overcoming fear in change management

Fear is a common element in conversations about change. People fear the unknown, potential losses, or failure. Addressing these fears openly can transform a potentially contentious conversation into a constructive dialogue. Discuss the possible challenges and positive outcomes and involve everyone in finding solutions. This approach helps build collective ownership of the change process. A study by McKinsey found that organizations with high levels of employee involvement in change initiatives are 2.6 times more likely to succeed.

Practical steps and techniques

Here are ten tips for handling difficult conversations:

  1. Lead with the Truth: Be honest and transparent.
  2. Be Authentic: Stay true to your values and beliefs.
  3. Collect Your Thoughts: Prepare before the conversation.
  4. Pace Yourself: Allow time for processing and understanding.
  5. Get Perspective: Consider different viewpoints.
  6. Avoid Definite Words: Stay flexible in your language.
  7. Be Brief: Keep your messages concise and focused.
  8. Focus on the Issue, Not the Person: Address behaviors, not character.
  9. Say More with Less: Be impactful with your words.
  10. Avoid Bringing Up Multiple Issues: Stick to one topic at a time.


Mastering difficult conversations is a skill that can be learned and refined. For leaders, these conversations are necessary and can be transformative for the organization. Leaders can navigate these conversations with confidence and effectiveness by focusing on emotional intelligence, preparing thoroughly, and creating an open environment. Remember, it all starts with you—understand your emotions, lead with empathy, and communicate clearly. Through continuous practice, you can enhance your communication skills and lead your organization through change with poise and professionalism.

Janet Miller Evans
Janet Miller Evans
Janet Miller Evans is the Founder and CEO of Entevos LLC, an international executive coaching and consulting practice. She is a collaborator and thinking partner with Growthspace. Known for her ability to build rapport and trust quickly, Janet specializes in leadership, team dynamics, mental wellness, and diversity. Her unique coaching approach combines industry best practices with personalized strategies, driving transformative and enduring change for clients across various sectors. Janet's 30-year career in government utilities, pharmaceuticals, technology, and communications has seen her lead teams of up to 150 employees and achieve multi-million-dollar revenue goals. She is a member of the Forbes Coaches Council and has coached clients in 40 countries, helping them reimagine possibilities and achieve peak performance. Janet serves on the Advisory Board for Oji Learning Labs and is a member of the Forbes Coaches Council. Additionally, she is a Fellow at the Institute of Coaching, a McLean Affiliate of Harvard Medical School, and a member of SHRM. Holding a Master of Public Administration and a BS in Business Administration/Marketing from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, Janet's coaching is designed to inspire and motivate clients toward sustainable success. Her dedication to empowering leaders and fostering authentic communication sets her apart, making her a source of inspiration for those aiming to reach their full potential. Janet collaborates with Growthspace and has coached clients in 40 countries. She is a faculty member at the Global Team Coaching Institute (GTCI), serves on the Advisory Board for Oji Learning Labs, and is a Forbes Coaches Council member. Additionally, she is a Fellow at the Institute of Coaching, McLean Affiliate of Harvard Medical School, and involved with SHRM and The Club of Silicon Valley. Her 30-year career includes leadership roles at FedEx, IBM, UPS, and Comcast. She has led teams of up to 150 employees, achieving multi-million dollar revenue goals, and completed over 1,000 hours of professional coaching. Janet holds a Master of Public Administration and a BS in Business Administration/Marketing from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. Janet enjoys hiking, reading, and traveling with her husband and two daughters.

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