As you may have noticed by now I’m a big fan of speaking up: respectfully and in the best way I can of course, but my default response is to speak up. I know this isn’t true for everyone and, even where it is true, there may be other obstacles to having an effective HardTalk.

There may, for example, be challenges related to the prevailing culture in the organisation or particular individuals. While these things can make it more difficult to communicate effectively and get the results you want they need not stop you entirely.

Assuming you want to try to change things for the better here are some typical obstacles to avoid:

Trying to tackle several issues at once

Often, by the time we’re ready to speak up the topic we want to discuss is no longer clear. Do you want to talk to your colleague about the fact that his report was late for the fourth time or is it more about the fact that you’re starting to feel like he doesn’t care? Is your problem that her action has led to you looking bad in front of your mutual boss? Or perhaps that you believe she’s been out to get you for the last year? Is it the fact that your boss interrupts? Or do you feel that, deep down, he’s not on your side? Working out what you really want to talk about is a special skill in itself.

Thinking we know what our HardTalk partner’s purpose is – and forgetting ours

We don’t know what’s going on inside somebody else’s head. No matter how clever we are, no matter how well we think we know them, no matter how “obvious” it should be what the “right” thing to think is. It’s easy to forget this. Try finding a phrase you’re comfortable with that allows you to get back on track. For example: “Hmm, ok, I can see I haven’t really understood where you’re coming from. Help me to understand better?” The great thing about this phrase is that it reminds us of our ultimate purpose, “To hear and to be heard”. If you focus on this it becomes easier to remember the other things we want to achieve. These might include an objective around the relationship and other things of value – not just the bottom line. “Winning” once is not always the answer. In many situations this will force your counterpart into “losing” and that is not likely to be something they find enjoyable and eager to repeat. Think about your long-term purpose.

Overlooking obstacles

The other person, our HardTalk partner, is not working in a vacuum. They have their own filters to deal with and they could be facing challenges and obstacles we don’t understand.

Reciprocating “bad” behaviour

When faced with any kind of behaviour humans tend to reciprocate. So if your opponent has taken a decision to deploy any one of the various “tricks” of “negotiating” e.g. lying, threatening, stonewalling, crying, sarcasm, shouting, silence, accusing, taking offence, the temptation is to do likewise. But you don’t have to reciprocate. You can choose your behaviour. One way is to draw attention to the behaviour i.e. the “truth” in HardTalk terms. For example you might say “You raise your voice whenever I try to talk about what happened in the market last year” and follow this by sharing your potential, e.g. “This makes me think you don’t want to talk about it right now. Is that right?” Or you could simply say, “I don’t know how to interpret your silence.”

Following a script

Preparation is hugely important. You won’t be given the opportunity to prepare for some of the most important difficult conversations so, if you get the chance, you should definitely do so. We talk you through how to do this in the HardTalk programme and you can download a copy of the DecisionTree that encapsulates that process at (LINK)

But preparation is not the same as following a script. Human beings are “messy” and as the man said “no plan survives first contact with the enemy”. Starting the conversation well is important and you can script that but after that it’s down to preparation, practice and putting in place tools you can use to build self-awareness and self-control.

It’s not about learning a “listicle” or “5 things that will transform your ability to persuade others”. It’s about building a set of skills, understanding a set of principles and practicing regularly.


Dawn Metcalfe is an executive coach, facilitator, trainer and leadership advisor. She is also the author of Managing the Matrix (published in both English and Arabic) and HardTalk™. Dawn is the founder of Dubai based PDSi, which helps individuals and teams get even better at what they do, and has worked with business leaders around the world to change the way they see the world, their behaviour and their impact on others.


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