Do you struggle to have tough conversations?

Hate having to face problems or challenges head on?

Don’t panic because you are not alone. In fact the amount of time we need to recover from negative emotions can differ as much as 3000% across individuals according to Davidson and Begley 2002.  It’s no wonder most people want to run ten miles away from having tough conversations is it? If we’re brave enough in the first place to tackle a tough convo, with a variable recovery rate that high it certainly won’t leave us feeling strong and confident to tackle the next tough topic will it?But here’s the rub: running away from it doesn’t always resolve it either.

To be clear, I’m not suggesting that every workplace dispute is resolvable. People who have chronic mental illness and/or disorders may not have the capacity to reach resolution let alone a shared agreement. So let’s lay down some basic parameters. I am writing from the perspective that we’re discussing two rational human beings needing to resolve a workplace problem. You would think this would be straightforward right? Wrong! Findings of this 18 month research project by Cy Wakeman titled “The No. 1 Source Of Workplace Conflict, And How To Avoid It” states: “Initially, nearly 100% of our respondents reported that other people were the primary cause of conflict at work.” So when it comes to addressing the problem in the first place this finger pointing mindset is not going to serve us well either. The wall of blame goes up and we’re left with a stand off.

Think about it for a moment. How many times have you walked away from a workplace conversation disgruntled, frustrated and/or misunderstood? It’s quite likely the other person in the conversation felt the exact same. Sadly this seems to be at the base of the majority of unresolved conflict and tension. Because of the thoughts and feelings the unresolved conflict and tension raise we then don’t want to address the situation. We secretly hope it will resolve itself and avoid the other person where possible don’t we? I want to share with you some frightening statistics that should alarm you:

  • 35 per cent of Australians report having a significant level of distress in their lives;
  • 26 per cent of Australians report above normal levels of anxiety symptoms;
  • 26 per cent of Australians report having moderate to extremely severe levels of depression symptoms; and
  • In 2015, anxiety symptoms were the highest they have been in the five years of the survey.

Whether at home or in the workplace, we’ve got a whole lot of people feeling stressed and anxious in Australia. And when we feel stressed and anxious it’s almost impossible to stay focused, on track and remain productive. We’re probably more likely to make mistakes, over analyse, second guess and procrastinate.

But guess what? The astonishing findings of Cy Wakeman’s research claimsa lack of clarity is what’s truly to blame.” Well I most certainly believe that to be the case and I am here to tell you there is a way to resolve this!

Through the framework of Fair Process you can manage conflict and tension before things erupts. But what is Fair Process you ask? “Fair process is a concept developed by W. Chan Kim and Renée Mauborgne that builds execution into strategy by creating people’s buy-in up front. When fair process is exercised in the strategy formulation phase, people trust that a level playing field exists, inspiring voluntary cooperation during the execution phase.”

Essentially most people will accept any outcome if they believe they have been afforded a fair process. The real magic is in applying fair process to all of your communications. Fair Process is a sure way to avoid blowouts and bust ups and all you need to do is follow this 3 step process:

Step 1: Engage- ensure that you are engaging with those you are communicating with. Don’t talk at people – talk with them.

Step 2: Explain – be clear about what it is you are wanting to express and why.

Step 3: Expectation clarity – clarify your expectations and invite input.

Fair Process is straightforward in my opinion and is what’s missing in most dispute claims. Fair Process also supports Cy Wakeman’s research findings that “a lack of clarity is what’s truly to blame”. Fair Process gives us a framework through which we can have healthy and robust conversations. When you share this framework with staff and invite everyone to hold each other accountable the risk of conflict is greatly diminished.

I encourage you to use Fair Process in all of your communications, especially the next time you need to have a tough conversation. Follow this framework step by step and see what happens. Your stress levels will be reduced and you won’t be walking away from conversations feeling disgruntled, frustrated and/or misunderstood.We no longer secretly hope conflict will resolve itself and avoid the other person either. Because the new thoughts and feelings connected to resolving conflict and tension, we are now more motivated to move toward resolution.

The best way to put this into practice is to use this knowledge! Your new mantra is: I Engage, explain and clarify expectations. 

Fair Process

Before you go I want you to commit to taking action! So here are some ideas: print this post and stick it on your desk where you can see it daily; discuss it with your team; invite feedback about how to improve communications. Comment below what you are going to do to practice Fair Process then go do it!


In 2000, Bronwyn Clee, together with others, pioneered the introduction or Restorative Justice practices into schools and community in the Northern Territory.

It is unique blend of experience … that has allowed Bronwyn to be good at communicating the importance of processes, which treat everyone with respect and dignity, and importantly, are capable of making a difference in the lives of those experiencing difficulties.

Bronwyn is a genuine and compassionate person who possesses considerable moral courage. She is prepared to challenge others in a respectful and constructive way.

Terry O'Connell OAM