Don’t Wing It: 3 Steps to Prepare for Tough Conversations

5 min read

We often approach tough conversations on the fly, squeezing them in between meetings, erupting into them spontaneously when we feel frustrated, or rushing toward them as though they are a four-alarm fire.

Unfortunately, this is often counterproductive, because it is difficult to access our discernment, wisdom, and core values when we are spinning.

Often, when we tell ourselves we cannot afford to take time to prepare, we are falling for a sense of “false urgency” that doesn’t actually exist.

In truth, in most cases, we cannot afford to “wing it,” as our spontaneous attempts to help can create a bigger mess for us to clean up later.

Fortunately, we do not need to be victims of false urgency or impulsive spontaneity. Research suggests that we can increase our chances of having constructive conversations by entering them with a still mind, a clear destination, and a tentative plan of action.

Elaine Shpungin at Conflict 180

Step 1 of Prepping for Constructive Conversation – Get Still

Source: Elaine Shpungin at Conflict 180

Step 1: Get Still

Research has shown that we can greatly improve our chances of having a more constructive conversation when we take time to calm our nervous system first.

When we interpret situations as being “urgent” or “awful” or “dangerous,” our heart rate accelerates, and oxygen, cortisol, adrenaline, and sugar are pumped into our bloodstream, preparing us for rapid and decisive action.

While this activation of our sympathetic nervous system (fight-flight-freeze mode), allows us to act more quickly, the quality of our decisions and our regard for the well-being of others may be reduced. We may also inadvertently spread the contagion of our anxiety, anger, or fear to those we are trying to help.

Finally, research suggests that “negative” emotions such as fear and anger can narrow our focus, preventing us from seeing possible choices and strategies, while positive emotions allow us to be more creative, open, flexible, and efficient.

Though we may initially tell ourselves we cannot afford the time to calm down, we need to remind ourselves that we will create more harm than good if we rush into the situation. As Dr. Lisa Feldman Barrett tells us in her TED talk, we are in control of our emotions, not the other way around.

In addition, when our inner compass needle is spinning, we are less likely to act in congruence with our core values (our “True North”).

Strategies to Be Still

There are many strategies we can use to calm our nervous system, including apps that guide us through breathing techniques, positive self-talk (e.g., reminding ourselves that conflict is an opportunity for people to get on the same page and work better together), walking, meditation, and progressive muscle relaxation.

Taking the critical step of calming our nerves before a tough conversation will improve our chances of being more constructive and less destructive.

Elaine Shpungin at Conflict 180

Step 2 of Prepping for Conversation – Destination

Source: Elaine Shpungin at Conflict 180

Step Two: Pick a Destination

We can further increase our effectiveness in tough conversations by creating a destination for which we want to aim, in the form of a constructive goal or intention.

Studies have shown that committing to a specific action or goal increases our chances of following through with it.

Creating Constructive Goals

Not all goals are created equal. To increase the likelihood of a goal being constructive, we can ask ourselves questions such as:

  • What are the needs of the different parties who are disagreeing? What are they worried about?
  • Is there a goal that is likely to bring people together rather than dividing them further?
  • What seeds can I plant toward furthering this goal?
  • What will I try to avoid doing, that tends to escalate things?
  • What will I try to lean into, which tends to increase understanding and de-escalate things?

An example of a constructive goal that can increase cohesiveness rather than divisiveness is to focus everyone’s attention on working toward the same mission.

Thus, adding a clear constructive goal to our calmer and more optimistic state of mind gives us an even greater chance of being effective in the situation.

Elaine Shpungin at Conflict 180

Step 3 of Prepping for Constructive Conversation – Plan Route

Source: Elaine Shpungin at Conflict 180

Step Three: Plan the Route

Although helpful, even clear goals and intentions can evaporate in the face of stress and habitual communication patterns, turning into success less often than we would like (think New Year’s resolutions). However, research has shown that adding a specific plan to the intention greatly increases success.

Thus, it behooves us to come up with specific action steps that are likely to get us to our destination (or goal).

Useful action steps to consider include:

  • Finding a mutually agreeable time for the conversation (people are more likely to be cooperative when they don’t feel blindsided, and their time is respected)
  • Deciding how you want to begin (something positive like an appreciation or talking about your constructive goal upfront can be effective)
  • Coming up with a potential structure (People take turns? we list group needs? We only focus on system-level issues, not personal?)
  • Coming up with a potential strategy for de-escalation (We agree to take a pause when one of us suggests it? We paraphrase what we are hearing? We go back to the mission statement?)


Taking the time to self-regulate (get still), set an intention, and plan a course of action is not a guarantee that others will cooperate.

However, both research and practice show that this purposeful approach can greatly enhance satisfaction and effectiveness in your next tough conversation, especially with repeated practice.

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