10 Communication Tips for Handling Tough Conversations

Whether you’re delivering the bad news to a stakeholder that you can’t finish a critical project on time, or you’re explaining to a Subject Matter Expert (SME) why you can’t use their content without rewriting it, having tough conversations comes with the turf for e-learning designers. But just because a conversation is challenging or uncomfortable doesn’t mean it can’t be productive. Let’s take a closer look at some ways you can prepare yourself for tough talks with a few tips and techniques for smoothing out the rough edges.

Before the Talk

We’ve all had the experience of being in a tough spot, and I’ll bet you can still recall how uncomfortable it was or how it felt like it took forever to play out. These experiences can be traumatic—especially if you were taken by surprise—and they can lead you to assume that all future talks with that person, or on that same topic, will be equally agonizing. But that’s not necessarily the case.

When a conversation looms, do you find yourself always bracing for the worst? Before you panic or get stressed out, consider that your anxiety and dread might just be creating extra work and distracting you from what you really need to do: get the job done. So here are some more constructive, proactive things to try instead:

  • Make a plan. When you’re anticipating conflict, it might seem like a good idea to script out some potential responses. But the reality is that it’s really hard to predict how tough conversations are going to unfold. You’re probably better off planning some key themes you’d like to hit on along with some clear, simple responses you can use to keep the conversation moving forward.
  • Collect your thoughts. Part of the challenge of tough conversations is that you need some time to steel yourself and plan what you want to say and how you want to say it. If, for instance, you’re heading into a tough talk with someone who’s notoriously difficult or unreasonable, give yourself a few minutes to take some deep breaths and think about how you’ll frame the conversation to avoid escalation right from the start.
  • Focus on the issue. As you’re thinking about what you want to say, keep in mind that every conversation has two ingredients: the issue and the people discussing the issue. It can be hard to separate the two, but strong communicators know that showing some empathy and playing it soft on the person and hard on the issue makes it easier for people to open up to you and to listen to what you have to say.
  • Develop some options for solutions. The need for a tough talk often arises when a project goes off the rails. To get things back on track you'll need to think through a few options for solutions, along with the upsides and downsides of each. Having these in your back pocket will help you feel more prepared and be seen as a good collaborator.  

During the Talk

You’re organized and prepared for a tough talk, but let’s be honest: you probably still have some lingering doubts or anxiety, right? That’s totally understandable. No one likes the idea of being caught off guard or put in the hot seat—and we all fear saying or doing “the wrong thing.”

While I can’t arm you with the right words to say at every turn, I can help you adopt the right mindset. And to do that, I’ve created this handy table of conversational dos and don’ts to keep in mind.



Take the initiative and lead the talk when appropriate

Interrupt or try to exclude others from speaking

Use positive, collaborative words and phrasing

Get caught up in assigning or deflecting blame

Offer up some informed solutions

Complain about issues that you know little about and that you’re not prepared to help resolve

Acknowledge the issues and the other person’s perspective and look for overlap between your perspectives

Dismiss a fair compromise because you can’t get everything you want or need

Use some clever redirection as needed to keep everyone on task

Allow the conversation to veer off topic or revisit the past

Disarm them with a little light (appropriate) humor

Take yourself too seriously. People don’t like to listen to someone who comes across as too calculating, arrogant, or intimidating


I know it’s hard to keep these in mind when you’re in the midst of a tough talk, but I find it helps to remember that no matter our communication styles or work priorities, my SMEs and I have a shared desire to do what’s best for the organization and its learners. It’s also helpful to remind yourself that just because a person or a situation is hard doesn’t mean it’s bad or you’re not good at your job. Growth happens when we’re pushed out of our comfort zones—and tough conversations are one way, for better or worse, for that growth to happen.

More Learning

Congratulations on uncovering the tip of this topic’s iceberg! You’ll find that E-Learning Heroes is home to loads of great tips and resources for working with SMEs. Check out just a few of them, below:

The Essential Guide to Working with Subject Matter Experts Ebook

Here’s How Subject Matter Experts Help Build Great Courses

5 Steps to Win Subject Matter Experts’ Hearts

4 Easy Ways to Win Over Reluctant SMEs

2 Ways You Can Boost Your Instructional Design Cred

Working with a difficult SME? Struggling to have productive conversations? Share your story in our Building Better Courses forum, where fellow e-learning pros can weigh in with their suggestions. Follow us on Twitter and come back to E-Learning Heroes regularly for more helpful advice on everything related to e-learning. If you have any questions, please share them in the comments.

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