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Challenging Conversations - Respond with 4P's

“So, what are you going to do about it?”

Paula mentally pressed pause. She hadn’t foreseen the conversation with Richard taking the twists and turns that it had, especially as all she had started with was good morning and asking how they were. She had been leading this department for the last 3 months after the sudden departure of the previous leader. She had seen these conversations go disastrously wrong with her predecessor and she wasn’t about to repeat his mistake. She knew what to do as she had gone through this with her coach after the last conversation with a colleague that she had. Let’s take a look at those key elements that Paula was going to include.


Have a look at when most conversations go wrong. Someone will share a view and someone else then slams it. This is called ‘strawmanning’. Take the worst part of their argument and then set light to it. It rarely leads to success, normally just heightened argument. Daniel Dunnett suggests that we try ‘Steelmanning’ people in conversations, in other words taking the best part of what they have said and building upon it back to your idea. It starts by understanding how someone FEELS and letting them know that. Then acknowledging how you may have FELT that way in the past, but that you have now FOUND a new way that is more helpful. Then explain it in terms of adding benefit to a part of their idea that you agree with. Build from a point of connection.

4 Steps

There are 4 clear steps to responding in a difficult conversation.

  • Pacify

  • Perceive

  • Partner

  • Plan


When someone is frustrated in a conversation, they will be operating in their Amygdala which as Steve Peters calls it – it is like an emotional chimp. So, before we can do any reasoning with them in a conversation, we need to help reassure and calm them. Simple scripts like ‘I am here to help you’ and ‘I can see that this has really upset you’ help to reassure their chimp that things will be ok.


The next stage is to really understand and perceive their perspective. Before we do any kind of responding, we need to understand someone’s position. This is where listening is key – listen to understand. A simple and effective way to do this is to summarise or paraphrase back what you think they have told you. “If I have understood you correctly, you have told me X, Y & Z.” That way, they can either say, 'yes', 'no' or 'yes but'. In all 3 cases you get a clear understanding of what the issue is and can then raise your reply to meet the need they have mentioned. We are trying to get to their clear hope. Simple questions like ‘Tell me about what happened and how you are feeling’, can reveal a lot about a situation.


Once you have clarity on the situation, ask yourself where are we in agreement? Start from there. “I agree with you that we have X & Y. Maybe then ask them what they think would be helpful or would improve the situation. Ask them what they think they could do to help. Raise what you think you could do. One of the things that brings people anxiety is when someone feels out of control. When we partner with someone, we enable them to keep hold of elements of control and they therefore feel engaged.


Knoster, in his complex model of change, talks about how having a clear plan helps avoid things feeling like a treadmill. It also brings clarity and ownership. So, as you plan the next stage with the person, you agree who is doing what and by when. This ensures that people don’t forget their part. Agree a time and date to meet again to review how it is going.

So, that is what Paula did.

“That sounds frustrating. I would really like to work with you to make this situation better.” PACIFY

“If I have understood you correctly you are concerned about communication and how we ensure everyone gets the same message and that the briefing emails are not always accurate.” PERCEIVE

“I’d like to thank you for raising it as I am concerned if we are missing key information and I want to improve things. Do you have any ideas on how we can ensure everyone gets the information that people want.” PARTNER

“This has been very helpful. So, to clarify how we are going to improve this, you said that you will work with Bernard to have system of a pre-briefing check. I will create a working party with reps from each department to look at our different comms areas. We will meet again on 29th April to see how things are.” PLAN

In in four simple steps, Richard went from enemy to ally.

Can we help you?

We hope this blog has been helpful and if you would like some more targeted support to explore having difficult conversations and gain better insight then Everyday Leader is here to help you. Our clients find their coaching empowering, as we help them gain a full perspective and find a way forward. We equally run group training on ‘Holding a challenging Conversation’ which we can run online or in person. If you have a challenge and you would like our support, then do get in contact with us. Give us a call on 01449 710438 or email if you would like us to help you explore this and empower you.


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