Firstly, before you start your difficult conversation – always remember the other person, says Emma Serlin.

Take the time to understand the context behind why someone may be behaving in a certain way. Pay close attention to the details of what someone is telling you to get to the underlying cause of a situation before launching into ‘fix it’ mode.

Here are two tools we teach people to use to make a challenging conversation easier and productive:

  • COAST – planning to initiate a difficult conversation.
  • CEDAR – responding effectively when others feel frustrated with you.

Going to the COAST

When you know you need to have a difficult conversation, go to the coast. When you start a difficult conversation, the other person can feel trapped and under threat.  You can help them to move away from this space, to one with fresh air and new perspectives. Create an open landscape for discussions.

  • C – Connect – identify and acknowledge what you appreciate and value about the other person. This will make them more receptive throughout the discussion. It’s also important to remember that, when someone behaves in a way you don’t like, it is the behaviour – not the person – that needs to be addressed.
  • O – Observe – remain objective by framing observations in a non-accusatory manner. For instance, say, “I noticed you’re often late to work,” instead of making a sweeping statement like, “You’re always late.” This helps the recipient to feel valued, preventing a defensive reaction.
  • A – Ask – ask questions to understand the other person’s perspective and make them feel heard. Transition from objective statements to empathetic enquiries. For example, after making the observation, you may want to ask a question like, “Is everything okay?” This shift fosters connection and shares how you’re willing to support them, making them more open to change.
  • S – Share – communicate the impact of the other person’s actions on you and others in the workplace. Sharing the wider impact facilitates understanding, emphasises the need for change and encourages a collaborative approach to finding a solution.
  • T – Take forward – end the conversation by outlining the next steps. By planning for a positive outcome from the beginning, you will have paved the way for compromise and cooperation that benefits both parties.

Grounding yourself with CEDAR

Sometimes, during a difficult conversation, emotions can prevail. When we feel someone is frustrated at us, it can cause us to panic or lose track of the purpose of the discussion. That’s where the CEDAR tool can help you to stay grounded:

  • C – Check-in – before engaging in a difficult conversation, check in with yourself. If you’re feeling any kind of stress or anxiety, take a deep six-second breath to calm your nerves and allow you to think more rationally. Acknowledge and identify your emotions.
  • E – Empathy – build empathy for yourself and the other person. Recognise that their frustration may stem from their values and needs not being met. By understanding their perspective and asking how you can meet their needs, you can foster a deeper connection. An apology can be powerful here – either to take responsibility or to solidify your empathy. “I would like to apologise for my part in this” or “I am sorry to hear you have experienced this”
  • D – Discover – focus on discovery. Ask open-ended questions like, “tell me more” and genuinely listen to their concerns. Acknowledge the validity of their point of view and demonstrate this with phrases like, “Thank you for helping me see things from your perspective, I hadn’t thought of it like that.”
  • A – Address – address their concerns while intertwining your own perspective. Express yourself from a less defensive and more grounded position, similar to the strength of a cedar tree. An apology can be powerful here.
  • R – Resolution – the above will allow you to end the conversation after reaching a resolution in a calm and cooperative manner. It will ensure both parties feel content and committed to working together towards a solution.

Three Grounding Tools: Understanding, Curiosity and Authenticity

When having a difficult conversation in the workplace, there are three key things to bear in mind: understanding, curiosity and honesty.

  1. Understanding

When you feel frustrated or are about to enter a difficult conversation, it’s key to understand your perspective and feelings. Why do you feel frustrated? What is the issue from your perspective? Then, you should do the same for the other person.

This will move the starting point of the discussion from the typical, accusatory dynamic of “what you did annoyed me”, towards a calmer and measured, “this happened, and this is why it’s an issue for me.”

  1. Curiosity

Approach the conversation with genuine curiosity to get a view into the motivations and perspectives of the other person. Before initiating the discussion, take the time to grasp the context and factors influencing their feelings and behaviour. Keep an open mind and be prepared to actively listen during the conversation. This will also help you to understand where any disconnect stems from, so you can address it effectively.

  1. Authenticity

Express your feelings authentically and stand by your perspective. Sharing both your emotional and practical viewpoints allows the other person to develop empathy for your position. This sets the stage for a constructive, honest and empathetic conversation, increasing the likelihood of a positive resolution.

While it’s not always possible to prepare for difficult conversations ahead of time, practising the CEDAR and COAST tools will equip you to handle situations effectively. Always remember to keep the three grounding tools front of mind – understanding, curiosity and authenticity. Prioritise empathy, ask clarifying questions and be specific about the necessary actions to move forward.

Navigating difficult conversations is not just a corporate skill; it’s a valuable life skill that can lead to more meaningful and productive interactions in all aspects of your life.


By Emma Serlin, Founder and Director at London Speech Workshop.