Can we ever truly be prepared for difficult conversations?

Have you ever felt caught in the headlights during a tricky performance review or when facing an aggravated client? The chances are that at some point you will, and it won’t have been pleasant. Wouldn’t it be great if we could prepare for such conversations?

Traditional models and advice for steering through a difficult conversation contain a certain tension between structured approaches, and reacting authentically in-the-moment. To resolve this, in this post we examine and critique the pros and cons of rehearsal for difficult conversations.

Go with the flow?

Although it would be nice to think that we can thoroughly prepare for a tricky conversation, conversations are, by nature, unplanned and unscripted. This is why they’re so great for generating new ideas, and for finding common ground. To a degree, we can’t go into a conversation expecting to know how it will go.

Indeed, the practice of active listening (a well-known method of dealing with a difficult conversation) even invites unrehearsed dialogue, in order to build greater clarity and rapport. You can’t listen actively if you’re expecting your audience to respond in a predictable way.

This is especially clear in musical performance, where live performers engage their audience best when inviting participation, rather than trotting out a prepared set list. It pays to be in the moment with your audience, and this extends to a difficult conversation. Listen to your audience, respond to their actual concerns, build rapport, and you’re halfway to winning them over.

Preparation, preparation, preparation

However, when it comes to successfully managing the unpredictable nature of face-to-face interactions, it’s absolutely fundamental to draw a distinction between rehearsal, and preparation.

From the world of speechcraft, we all know those truly gifted presenters who can simply gather their thoughts, take the stage, and capture the room for hours on end. These people aren’t improvising at random; nor are they delivering a completely scripted performance. Instead, they’ve prepared a wealth of material to the point that they’re ready to respond to any given context, and the same is required of anyone wanting to successfully undertake a difficult conversation with a team member.

Jazz musicians also tend to be excellent at this, with a seemingly uncanny ability to simultaneously change tune at the same time in the middle of an improvisation. This is actually the combination of well-developed musical theory and excellent non-verbal communication. The effortlessness in fact reflects their total preparedness.

The fundamental quality that allows these people to mediate between preparation and spontaneous response is a high level of Emotional Intelligence (EQ). This quality of self-awareness allows them to recognise and control instinctive emotional responses, in order to more effectively tailor communication style and content on the spot. It’s this combination of preparation and high levels of emotional intelligence that unlocks the ability to successfully navigate through and defuse a difficult conversation.

Practice makes perfect

In short, while rehearsal is neither realistic nor desirable per se, you should absolutely be familiar with some techniques for defusing a difficult conversation. We regularly run masterclasses in The Neuroscience of Difficult Conversations where you can learn about the relationship between human physiology behind difficult conversations, and where you can learn and practice some of the techniques associated with defusing them with one of our trained actors.

We’ve also created the Linac Cool Down Model, as a quick reference to help guide you through the process of defusing a difficult conversation. If you’d like to receive a copy, please email us at and we’ll send it over.