Can We Talk? Managing Difficult Conversations One Conversation at a Time

October 8, 2021

by Roberta Matuson

Can We Talk? Who doesn’t cringe when they hear these three words? I mean really, who wants to have a discussion that’s going to be uncomfortable?

Most people handle awkward conversations by ignoring them—which generally makes the situation worse.

I almost fell into this same trap myself. A neighbor, who agreed to share in the cost of a fence between our property line, was questioning previous shared expenses, even though we previously sent her all the invoices, which her mother (a co-owner of the house) had agreed to.

A text arrived in my inbox with yet another request for additional paperwork. I found my blood pressure rising, as I hammered out a stern reply.

Fortunately, before hitting send, I caught myself, and instead, hit the delete button. I then composed a text that was more in line with the advice I give my readers in my latest book, Can We Talk? Seven Principles for Managing Difficult Conversations at Work. (Note: The Kindle version is now available for download.)

Here’s what I said.

“We’re next-door neighbors. Why don’t you stop by, and we can discuss any concerns you may have? Sound good?”

In my experience, and according to a number of research studies, avoidance of difficult conversations has grown into a full-blown epidemic. Or if people do have them, they’re like me—quick to prove at all costs that the other person is down-right wrong, and they’re right.

Of course, the result is predictable—increased stress and often the problem gets worse and not better.

The Cost of Unspoken Conversations

The fact that so many people are avoiding conversations is having a dramatic impact on the health and well-being of organizations and their employees. Here’s how:

  • A December 6, 2016 press release by VitalSmarts noted that every single conversation failure costs an organization $7,500 and more than seven work days.
  • An August 15, 2017 study, released by leadership development and conversation experts at Fierce, Inc. found that 53 percent of employees are handling “toxic” situations by ignoring them. By doing so, they are allowing toxic employees to continue to wreak havoc on the workplace.
  • July 2008 report published by CCP Human Capital, found that employees spend 2.8 hours per week dealing with difficult situations amounting to approximately $359 billion in paid hours.
  • As a result, employee engagement and organizational trust are declining, while workplace stress is rising.

Avoiding the Avoidance Syndrome

We tend to put off doing things that we’re uncomfortable doing. For example, I put off writing a book proposal for years, because the thought of doing so felt overwhelming. It wasn’t until I made the decision to overcome my fears, that I was able to get this done. When I did, I was able to move full steam ahead.

The first book proposal I ever wrote took three years to complete. Several years later, I completed another book proposal in three days.

The key to avoiding the avoidance syndrome is confidence. When you feel confident about doing something, nothing will get in your way, which is why I chose confidence as the first of seven principles for managing workplace conversations that I write about in my new book, Can We Talk?

Difficult tasks and conversations tend to go best when you approach the situation feeling self-assured.

Building Self-Confidence

Here are a few ways to build self-confidence.

Begin your day with a positive mindset. No doubt you’re familiar with the term “mindset over matter.” When you look in the mirror each morning, tell yourself something positive.

To quote the wise words of Buddha: “What we think, we become.”

Here are several of my favorite affirmations to help you positively start your day. Feel free to use these or come up with your own.

  • I can do whatever I set my mind to.
  • What other people think of me doesn’t not make me who I am.
  • I’m good enough.
  • I have so much value to offer others.

Make note of your successes. At the end of each day, write down one or two successes you experienced that day. Keep this in a journal or pin this list up on your bulletin board. Don’t waste time worrying about whether something is worthy of being considered a success.

You’re the judge and jury here.

Each morning, before you begin your workday, review your success list. This list is an excellent reminder of how capable you are and will help you start your day off positively.

Be kind to yourself. Rarely will everything go according to plan, which is why you need to forget perfect. Instead, when conversations don’t go as well as you hoped they would, take time to analyze what, if anything, did go well. Ask yourself what you could have done differently to achieve a better result.

The more you practice doing something, the better you’ll get. Begin by taking on one difficult conversation that you’ve been putting off. If you’re interested in dramatically improving your communication skills, here’s the link to Can We Talk?.


Roberta Matuson is a globally known thought leader who helps leaders achieve dramatic improvements in employee engagement, retention, productivity and profitability. Based in Brookline, Massachusetts, she is the CEO and founder of Matuson Consulting, where she works with Fortune 500 companies and mid-size, emerging companies to create teams that achieve extraordinary results. She is known globally as “The Talent Maximizer®.” Roberta is a seasoned speaker and the author of five books, including Suddenly in Charge, The Magnetic Leader, and Evergreen Talent.