How to Master Difficult Conversations

By looking inward and listening, disagreements can yield solutions

Duke employees participate in a Crucial Conversations course at Learning and Organization Development.
Duke employees participate in a Crucial Conversations course at Learning and Organization Development.

As a financial analyst for Duke Global Health Institute, Sandra Ruane’s job involves balancing the needs of faculty doing important work in far-off places with complex regulatory and budget issues.

Sometimes, people aren’t always going to hear what they want to from her. 

“When you are the finance person, you have to say ‘no’ a lot,” Ruane said. “That’s not always easy when you’re working with faculty and staff who are, rightfully so, passionate about the work they do.”

When Ruane heard about a Crucial Conversations course offered by Duke Learning and Organization Development, she signed up. And after completing the course this spring, Ruane said it was time well spent.

Crucial Conversations offers strategies on how to turn potentially difficult dialogues into ones that can yield agreement and solutions. The course will be offered December 6-7.

“A conversation is crucial when stakes are high, opinions vary and emotions run strong,” said Dinetta Richardson, who teaches the course. “Those skilled at crucial conversations are able to avoid attacking and steer the conversation toward problem solving.”

Based on some course themes such as empathy and accuracy, here are three things to keep in mind when going into conversation with high emotions and different opinions.

Take a look at yourself

Before you can have a productive conversation about an issue, have an honest appraisal of emotions and reasons behind them. 

“I try to think about ‘What’s my part in this?’” Ruane said.

If you can separate emotions from the root of a disagreement, you can come to the table with solutions.

“Once you’ve gotten past that step, it’s a little bit easier to have the conversation,” Richardson said. 

Focus on facts

Often, people come to difficult discussions with assumptions and judgments. Instead, find the facts. It’s important to ask questions aimed at getting a fuller picture of the other person’s side of an issue. Meanwhile, try to explain factors that led to your position in a way that avoids opinions.

“The more you get the facts, the more it pushes the emotions out of the picture,” Ruane said.


People on both sides of a disagreement are usually working toward a mutual goal. 

While it’s easy to assume you know their motivations, it’s important to try and understand how they arrived at their conclusion. If the other person can do the same, a positive outcome can likely be found.

“If you’re assuming you know somebody’s story and responding based on what you think their story is, most of the time, you’re wrong, you’re responding in the wrong way,” Ruane said. “… Not assuming you know someone’s story is big. And it crosses every plane of life.”