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3 keys to having tough conversations

Leonie Cutts

On average, we’ve found that employees lose up to two and a half hours each day in workplace drama. Add this up, and you’ll find that 816 hours a year, per person, in every organisation, represents billions of dollars of lost productivity.

Cy Wakeman

Some conversations are tough, but not having them might be even tougher. Living with the discomfort caused by assumptions or worrying about negative outcomes, can churn up a lot of energy and waste a lot of time.

In our recent Unpacked session with Sian Mertens, we asked everyone to share what makes a conversation tough for them:

  • A tough conversation is one that could lead to confrontation — the internalisation of what could be, without knowing what could be.
  • The potential to hurt someone else
  • Negotiation, feedback and any conversation where emotions are at play
  • Performance conversations
  • Loss and difficult memories.

While our tough conversations may differ in nature, there are 3 key things that we can do that will make any tough conversation a little easier and more effective.



  1. Clarify intention

Get clear about why you want to have the conversation before going into it. Check your assumptions and make sure you have a kindness mindset, rather than one of judgement.

Approaching tough conversations with the intention to understand and to solve a problem, rather than fault finding or placing blame, will change the nature of the conversation.

Check your intention and readiness for a tough conversation with these questions from Brené Brown’s work:

  • Am I ready to sit next to you instead of across from you?
  • Am I willing to put the problem in front of us instead of between us?
  • Am I ready to listen?
  • Am I ready to take accountability for my part in this?
  • Am I prepared to see another side?

2. Create psychological safety

“It’s not expensive to be yourself.”

Dr Timothy Clark

According to Project Aristotle, the study of hundreds of groups by Google, Psychological safety is the #1 key dynamic of high performing teams. So it’s not just important for the individual, but also for productivity. It’s about making people feel included, feel safe to speak up, feel safe to fail and learn and feel safe to challenge the status quo. This is demonstrated by our behaviours, not just the words we use. Cutting people off, speaking over the top, not asking for thoughts or input, all diminish psychological safety. Before a tough conversation, it’s important to have this top of mind — to set up the environment for inclusion.


3. Cherish curiosity

I know that if I’m too attached to my own idea or story, it can be difficult to enter a tough conversation with curiosity. It’s a good idea to check yourself and see if you are open to hearing what the other person has to say, to be able to consider there is another way of looking at the situation and to explore together.

Psychological safety allows for moderate risk taking, creativity, speaking your mind and sticking your neck out without the fear of having it cut off.

Professor Amy Edmonson

How can CCS Cards help?

A foundation of psychological safety is that it is safe for you to be you. For you to be able to express your thoughts and feelings without the risk of being rejected, shut down or ignored.

The process of using the CCS Cards plays a key role in expressing your thoughts and emotions because:

  • they allow a space for personal reflection, to help clarify thoughts and feelings
  • they help enable each person to express themselves a little more clearly, especially if the topic is tough
  • they provide a ‘common language’ — as everyone has the same pack of cards, there is a sense of connection when cards are shared. No matter what the reason someone chose a card, if it is the same as one you chose, there is a sense of ‘they are like me’, which builds connection and trust.
  • there is a natural process of taking turns and truly listening to each person share
  • curiosity is sparked as you listen and wonder why people chose what they chose.


CCS Cards are an excellent tool for easing tough conversations. Take a look at the processes in the Difficult conversations section (p133) of the Unpacked: CCS User Manual.


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Leonie Cutts

Co-founder of CCS Corporation, co-developer of the CCS, facilitator and coach. Leonie is passionate about bringing people together for connection and growth in both their personal and professional lives.