Conversations can get tricky!  At last months learning session at TACSI we explored our own methods for holding difficult conversations and examined what frameworks exist that could help us. We want to share these ideas and links to help you too.

At TACSI we sometimes have to have difficult conversations with each other and with our clients – and in order to change things in some of the systems we are working in, being able to have tough conversations and hold a line of advocacy is a core skill for all of us.

There are a great number of books, articles, podcasts and webinars that include frameworks for holding difficult conversations, and for helping us think through what we can do before we get to the place of having to do so.

There is a list of some of them included at the end of this post.

However, the only real way to learn how to have a difficult conversation is to do it – it’s a practice rather than a theory.  And maybe it’s less about losing the fear of having conversations like this over time, but becoming fear-less about them, and working out what conditions we need to create to ensure that they have the best possible chance of good outcomes for all sides.

What is perhaps most interesting is getting to understand our own responses to having to engage or being engaged in a difficult conversation.  At the workshop we explored the key things that stop us from having difficult conversations – and between the research and the brains in the room we came up with the following (see picture):

  • Time constraints
  • It’s easier not to
  • Fear that you will get upset or emotional
  • Being perceived as unkind or mean
  • Losing the relationship

A great many of the things that stop us are about our own fears of the consequences.  And as we all know from our work, the best way to face the fears of the unknown and unknowable is to ‘try, test and learn’.

We finished the session in Adelaide by pulling together a few principles that we could use to build a strong culture of feedback in TACSI.  They are listed below.

  • Build commitment to work colleagues – care, awareness, authenticity & trust
  • Noticing and commiting to drawing a clear line between debriefing with colleagues and gossiping
  • Being authentic and contributing to a safe space
  • Acknowledging the views of other and their needs
  • Developing personal skills with support
  • Holding each other accountable without contributing to each others emotional distress
  • Committing to having the conversations that need to be had
  • Committing to asking for and giving feedback.


One of the things we explored was whether we should have some named volunteers within TACSI who could ‘buddy’ anyone who needs to either prepare for a difficult conversation or to debrief from one.

Also we have talked at TACSI before about ‘coaching’ and people taking on more recognised coaching roles in TACSI – is anyone interested in the role that coaching could take to help us get better at giving feedback?  Should we move to ‘formalising’ this as a role in TACSI or should we keep it informal (as it largely is now)?

Have you created any roles or processes to assist people to have more productive difficult conversations? Please let us know what you did and how it went in the comments!


Crucial Conversation: Tools for talking when stakes are high by Al Switzler, Joseph Grenny, Kerry Patterson, and Ron McMillan

Difficult Conversations: How to discuss what matters most by Douglas Stone

The Discomfort Zone: How leaders turn difficult conversation into breakthroughs by Marcia Reynolds

Vital Conversations: Making the impossible conversation possible by Alec Grimsley

Some websites and articles:

A Martial Arts approach to difficult conversations

A series of articles about difficult conversations at work from the Harvard Business Review

Online courses:

Udemy has a couple of courses on managing difficult conversations at work, the best of which is: How to manage difficult conversations at work and at home.

A short and sharp video with tips from


Both these podcasts are around difficult conversations in the workplace

Coaching for Leaders


If you have any ideas or suggestions for other resources we should look at please put them in the comments!


Ingrid Burkett

Ingrid is Director of Learning and Systems Innovation at The Australian Centre for Social Innovation.

This article has been adapted from a version originally published in Journal, TACSI’s internal publication.