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Summary: Can We Talk? Seven Principles for Managing Difficult Conversations at Work by Roberta Chinsky Matuson

Can We Talk? (2021) outlines the seven communication principles essential for successfully navigating difficult conversations in the workplace, be it asking for a promotion, delivering negative feedback, or resolving a professional conflict.


With the right intention and framework, you can transform your workplace communication challenges into meaningful, effective moments of connection, says management consultant Roberta Chinsky Matuson. While few people set out to sabotage conversations deliberately, she explains, some unintentionally communicate in ways that upset others, disrupt teams, and cost organizations time and money. Happily, Matuson’s seven-principle framework can help you navigate thorny conversations at work and muster the courage to tackle challenging topics.


  • Businesses lose time and money when employees avoid difficult conversations.
  • To navigate tricky conversations, adopt seven principles: confidence, clarity, compassion, curiosity, compromise, credibility and courage.
  • First, to discuss a tough topic, you must corral your confidence.
  • Second, embrace clarity by identifying your desired outcome before engaging in conversation.
  • Third, demonstrate compassion by communicating from a place of empathy.
  • Fourth, be curious about others’ experiences, and ask the right questions.
  • Fifth, compromise involves making concessions so that both participants feel they’ve won something.
  • Sixth, to build credibility, start by cultivating your self-belief.
  • Seventh, summon courage to tackle the most difficult workplace conversations.


Communication Skills, Personal Development, Career Success, Business Culture, Business Conflict Resolution and Mediation, Business Communication, Running Meetings and Presentations

Introduction: Learn the seven key principles for navigating difficult discussions well.

Silence isn’t always golden.

Just look at the numbers: according to the startup Bravely, 70 percent of employees admit to avoiding challenging conversations with their colleagues. Now, this might not be so striking if not for a 2016 study that found that every failed conversation costs companies $7,500 and 7 days of work. Not only that, but a 2008 report revealed that the average employee spends 2.8 hours every week managing difficult situations – situations that might have been avoided if we weren’t so reluctant to have hard conversations in the first place.

[Book Summary] Can We Talk? Seven Principles for Managing Difficult Conversations at Work

Silence isn’t always golden.

Workplace issues don’t just go away when we ignore them. Instead, they turn toxic. Poor, or absent, workplace communication inevitably ends up eroding organizational trust, worker satisfaction, and productivity. So don’t ignore difficult issues – get talking!

Whether you’re asking your boss for a raise, delivering feedback to your direct reports, or navigating a tricky office etiquette dilemma, learning to take charge of the conversation will get you one step closer to achieving the results you want.

In these summaries, you’ll learn

  • what a one-sided conversation is and how to avoid it;
  • the one mistake that invariably derails negotiations; and
  • what your inner child can teach you about workplace communication.

Confidence is the key to productive communication.

Do you want the bad news or the good news first?

Let’s start with the bad news. There’s no handbook for navigating difficult workplace conversations, no manual on how to ask your boss to stop micromanaging, and no step-by-step guide on how to tell Gary from accounts that he has onion breath.

The good news, however, is that if you understand the seven principles of effective workplace communication, these difficult conversations will start to become a whole lot easier.

So, let’s start with the first of our seven principles: confidence.

Confidence is key to navigating difficult workplace situations productively.

To begin with, you need confidence to initiate conversations. Marketing manager Rishi lacked the confidence to pull his boss aside and ask for a raise, even though he’d taken on more responsibility since his team downsized. Instead, he fell into a common trap. He had the conversation in his head. Over and over and over. Each time, Rishi imagined his boss giving more and more reasons to refuse his raise. Until eventually, he talked himself out of approaching his boss at all. The problem? You can’t anticipate someone else’s reaction. If Rishi’d had the confidence to request a raise, his boss may well have approved it.

Without confidence, you can ignore your gut instincts and derail working relationships in the process. That’s exactly what happened to Danielle, whose boss pulled her up on a shoddy report. Danielle knew the report wasn’t her best work and her gut instinct was to offer her boss an unreserved apology. But self-doubt kicked in and Danielle reached for excuses. She blamed another department for giving her the wrong numbers. She implied her boss hadn’t allocated her enough time to finish the report. Danielle knew her boss wanted her to own her actions but she didn’t have enough confidence to do that. As a result, her relationship with her boss deteriorated.

But, when you are able to inspire confidence in others, you instantly reframe your tricky requests into reasonable asks. Louise had just started a new role when she was obliged to ask for time off to deal with a personal matter. She assured her boss she’d make up the work later. Her boss approved the leave instantly. Why? Well, Louise had already made several deposits into the bank of trust, by working late to meet a deadline and covering for a sick coworker. If Louise hadn’t proven herself a hard worker, her commitment to making up missed work might have just sounded like an empty promise.

In short, confidence is the key to initiating conversations, allowing your best instincts to dictate your dialogue, and priming others to respond favorably to your requests. So . . . should people lacking in self-confidence just give up on difficult conversations now?

Not at all. Confidence isn’t an innate quality but a muscle that can be trained. The Buddha says, “What we think, we become.” So think yourself confident! Start your day with an affirmation, a phrase that clarifies your ambitions and intentions into a positive statement. You can come up with your own, or try these on for size: I can do what I set my mind to. I’m strong and capable. I can rise to any challenge. Once you’re thinking confidently, challenge yourself to initiate difficult dialogues – but, where possible, try and start small. Tackle the least intimidating issues on your to-do list, then work up to bigger problems.

Make clarity a priority.

Your boss tells you to lift your performance, but she doesn’t tell you where you need to improve. A colleague wants your help on a project, but you have no idea what sort of time commitment is involved. You try to tell your manager you’re unhappy with your current role, and he nods along, but weeks later your situation is unchanged.

What’s the problem with all of these conversations? Well, one or both of you hasn’t been clear about what they want or need out of the discussion.

And that’s what brings us to the second of our seven principles: clarity. In difficult workplace discussions, clarity is your number one priority.

Before you begin a conversation, work out what you want from it. Set a concrete goal, like “I’d like to work more closely with the design department,” rather than, “I want a more creative role.” Ask yourself what you want the other person to do directly after your conversation – perhaps you’d like them to give you a raise, assign you to a new team, or give you more thorough feedback at your next performance review. And decide ahead of time what you’re prepared to risk to achieve your desired result. There’s nothing worse than threatening to quit your job, only to have your boss take you up on the offer! Then again, if you’re prepared to take on extra responsibilities or make a transfer to achieve your objective, then your partner needs to know that.

No matter how the conversation unfolds, keep your objective in mind. You’re all about clarity, but the other person may not be. If they try to deflect focus, steer back to your objective and stick to facts. For example, in response to a poor performance review, a deflector might say, “Sharon’s numbers are worse than mine!” Respond with something like, “We’re here to talk about you and how you can manage a 5 percent increase in your sales by next quarter.” Or they might deflect with a sob story. Here you can be kind but firm. Try something like, “Hey, I’m so sorry things are tough at home. But unfortunately, we still need to talk about your poor performance. Is now a good time or should we reschedule for tomorrow morning?”

While you should be prepared for the conversation to go poorly, don’t be surprised if it goes well. If the other person offers to meet your objective, that’s your cue to close the conversation, establishing next steps if necessary. If your boss says, “I’d hate to lose you but I guess I could talk to HR about a transfer,” don’t ask “Are you sure?” Get your boss’s commitment to set up an HR meeting then thank them for their time.

Compassion has a place in professional communication

It’s important to be clear what you want from a conversation and to stick to your guns about getting it. But there’s one communication principle that trumps clarity – and that’s compassion, our third principle. Let’s look at this exchange between Matt, a manager, and Damian, his report. Damian, a star player on Matt’s team, was recently promoted at Matt’s insistence. But in this new role, Damian has disappointed. Matt wants to know why. The conversation starts well. Demonstrating confidence and clarity, Matt lays out his concerns and asks Damian to account for his poor performance.

Damian tries to explain, but his answers aren’t satisfactory. Matt pushes. Damian breaks down. He’s going through a divorce and his father is terminally ill. Note that Damian hasn’t defaulted to a sob story to explain away his performance – he’s genuinely struggling. But – at exactly the point where he should have stopped to empathize with Damian – Matt brings the conversation back to Damian’s job and how he can improve. In doing so, he misses an opportunity to do something more powerful than simply achieving his conversational objective – to demonstrate compassion.

So, why is compassion so important?

As a rule, people want to work with, and for, compassionate people. No one wants a boss who doesn’t care that their Grandma just died or a colleague who only grumbles about the extra workload when someone on their team breaks a leg. Demonstrating empathy and compassion for others helps establish goodwill and rapport – two things that go a long way toward smoothing out potentially difficult workplace interactions.

What’s more, demonstrating compassion can often turn an adversarial conversation into an opportunity. Let’s say a colleague mistakenly accuses you of leaving some key info out of a report, and you don’t like his agitated manner. You’re tempted to say something snarky like, “If you read the report properly you might see that the numbers are right there.” But, you choose not to escalate and practice compassion instead. You say, “I’m certain I did include those numbers – the index shows they’re on page 35. I know how easy it is to miss these things when you’re under pressure.” Now you’ve corrected your colleague’s mistake and signaled you know he’s working hard in a stressful situation. You had to put your ego aside – after all, you weren’t at fault here – but you’ve effectively defused a difficult discussion.

Some people are naturally skilled at practicing compassion. Don’t worry if that’s not you! The deeper your connection is with someone, the easier it is to show compassion toward them. So work on your connections with your colleagues. Try and find shared interests – they’re a great foundation for building professional relationships. Put in time getting to know them as individuals. But remember, you can’t build rapport instantly. All that chit-chat in the shared kitchen and small talk before Zoom meetings is an investment in your workplace connections. And watch your nonverbal communication as well. Expressing empathy while also leaning away or failing to make eye contact will only make you come off as insincere – in which case, you’d be better off keeping your mouth shut!

Curiosity is a virtue.

Getting in touch with your inner child can pay dividends when it comes to workplace communication. Before you get too excited, We’re not suggesting finger-painting sessions instead of weekly stand-ups or mandatory afternoon naps. But we are suggesting you tap into a childlike sense of inquisitiveness next time you face a difficult conversation.

Kids are full of questions – Why is the sky blue? Why can’t I eat chocolate for dinner? As adults, we’re less likely to ask questions than to form judgments. And more times than not, our judgments are likely to be wrong, or at least only partially right. To get the full picture, you need to get curious, which is our fourth principle.

Asking lots of questions not only helps you get a better handle on the issue you’re discussing, it signals to others that you welcome their input and value their opinions. Questions like, Why do you think this happened? And, What do you think our next steps should be? invite your partner to collaborate on achieving a constructive outcome from your discussion.

Conversations that shut down before you achieve your objective can be frustrating. So, curiosity is your friend, here! When you sense someone is trying to close down a conversational topic, try asking an open-ended question, the kind of question that can’t be answered with a simple yes or no. These questions can reignite dialogue and allow you to steer the conversation back to where you want it.

But, beware of too many conversational tangents. When a dialogue wanders off-topic, that can be because you’re thinking creatively and considering new angles. But, there are times you need to stay on topic and focus on delivering a performance review rather than musing over your favorite ice-cream flavors. There’s nothing wrong with a firm but polite statement along the lines of, “Well, back to the topic at hand – let’s take a look at those conversion metrics.”

You can win through compromise.

Conversation isn’t a competitive sport – in order to “win” what you want out of a dialogue, your partner doesn’t necessarily have to lose. When you meet each other halfway, everyone can walk away from a conversation feeling like they’ve won. Which brings us to our fifth principle, compromise.

Here’s how to have win-win discussions:

Keep things respectful. You might be making a straightforward request for time off, or you might be grappling with a big-picture issue on which you and your teammate can’t see eye to eye. No matter how simple or complex the conversation, you’ll derail it the moment you disrespect the other person. The perceived disrespect will take precedence over the topic at hand, whether they show it or not.

If you know you’re about to initiate a tough conversation and you’re anticipating some pushback, put in some work prediscussion. Clarify why you’re talking and keep that at the top of your mind during the discussion. If your dialogue drifts away from the why, pull it back. And if you’re making a request, work ahead of time to make sure you articulate it as clearly as possible. Don’t just ask your boss for “more responsibility” – say exactly which tasks you’re interested in taking on and suggest a timeframe for doing so.

In the middle of negotiations, it can be easy to forget your objective and focus instead on trying to force the other person to agree with you on every point. Remember, you don’t need to agree with each other on everything in order to reach a satisfactory result. You might think a client is underpaying you, while your colleague might think they’re a bad fit for your brand – competing rationales shouldn’t stop you both from deciding to drop them as a customer.

Difficult discussions and complex negotiations take a lot out of everyone involved. Even if the other person is saying things you don’t want to hear, make it clear you value their involvement. Thank them for their feedback and opinions. Don’t interrupt while they’re talking. Avoid accusatory language and prioritize I-centric statements – so, “I feel overwhelmed by my workload” rather than “You’ve offloaded way too much work onto me.” If you really feel like you’re hitting a wall, don’t be afraid to take a break. Set a time to pick up the conversation at a later date.

Build credibility to win better communication outcomes

As you work your way up the corporate ladder, there are a few things you can expect to automatically accrue along the way: more money, more status, and a more impressive job title. But there’s one quality that won’t automatically accrue no matter how close you get to the C-suite – and it also happens to be a prerequisite for professional success. I’m talking about our sixth principle: credibility. You can be an intern, yet still inspire trust and confidence in others. And you can be a CEO, yet still struggle to bring others on board with your vision.

Luckily, credibility is a quality that you can cultivate. Here’s how:

This may sound obvious but make sure you know what you’re talking about. Learn about the field you’re working in – and remember, developments in your area will continue to take place long after you’ve received your qualifications. Stay on top of current research and trends. The same principle applies to meetings and presentations. If you’re pitching a client, make sure you’ve researched their business model thoroughly. If you’re attending a budget meeting, have the latest figures on hand.

Next, aim for consistency. Acing a presentation or dazzling a client once won’t win you credibility points. But making a habit of performing your work to a high standard will. So will consistently prioritizing your team’s success above your own, responding promptly to requests and queries, and completing projects on deadline. When people know they can count on you, that’s when they see you as credible.

Finally, own your mistakes. You can be knowledgeable, skilled, and a consistent high performer and still make mistakes. That’s okay! But the moment you deflect blame for your failures onto someone or something else, all that credibility you’ve worked so long to build up evaporates. If you make a mistake – and you will – take full responsibility for it. What’s more, share your learnings. Say something like, “I rushed those proofs through without seeking input from the graphics department – I know now how important their input is at this stage and I won’t do it again.”

So, how does credibility come into communication specifically, you might ask? It’s simple. If you demonstrate credibility in what you do, during conversations your colleagues will trust in what you say. Do you want to push an employee to take on a new role? Recommend a left-field new hire to the hiring manager? Implement a new high-risk, high-reward marketing strategy? If your partner thinks you can walk the walk as well as talk the talk – that is, if they trust you – then you’re much more likely to get a positive response.

Develop the courage to initiate tough conversations – it’s worth your while.

Here’s the honest truth: sometimes workplace conversations are downright unpleasant. You can clarify your objectives beforehand, ask the other person all the right questions, compromise adeptly, and reach a mutually satisfactory outcome – and still find every second of the discussion deeply uncomfortable. What’s more, some of the high-stakes situations where you most need to advocate for yourself – like if you’re experiencing workplace harassment, for example – are the most nerve-wracking to broach with your colleagues. So, how can you muscle through tricky conversations and stand up for yourself effectively? That’s where our seventh and final principle comes in: courage.

Fear of discomfort is often what holds us back from initiating difficult but necessary discussions. Someone takes credit for our work, but we decide not to call them out on it. Someone on our team isn’t pulling their weight, but we decide not to make waves by calling it to our boss’s attention. Here’s the thing: not talking about the problem won’t make it go away. As long as the problem persists, so do our feelings of discomfort and dissatisfaction. Moreover, if you consistently fail to assert yourself, your colleagues may take advantage of that fact. If you don’t push back when others pawn their work off on you, odds are they’ll continue to overload you with work.

Still on the fence about whether to start a particularly difficult conversation? Ask yourself these questions: If I don’t do something about this now, will I regret it later? What’s stopping me from initiating this discussion? Is it a valid reason for not speaking out? What’s the worst thing that could happen if I do say something? What’s the worst thing that could happen if I don’t say something?

Let’s say you’re ready to start a difficult dialogue, but you’re still feeling nervous. That’s okay. Some people are born with courage. The rest of us can practice it. Unless the issue at hand is time-sensitive, it can be helpful to build your courage by doing a dry run. Choose a low-risk conversation. Perhaps a colleague takes too long to answer your emails and you want to confront them about it. Write a short script, refine it, then run through it a few times before you embark on the conversation itself.

Not all these low-risk conversations will go smoothly. Some may be total failures. And that’s fine! Remember the words of entrepreneur Alan Weiss, “If you’re not failing, you’re not trying!” The idea here is to build the courage and confidence you need to stand up for yourself where it really counts.


Businesses lose time and money when employees avoid difficult conversations.

When you mishandle difficult workplace conversations, you can damage your business relationships and career prospects. Eschewing tough conversations won’t solve your problems: In fact, avoidance can increase team frustration levels and cost your organization dearly. According to Bravely, a workplace resource start-up, 70% of workers avoid awkward conversations with managers, co-workers and direct reports. Just a single conversation failure can cost your organization as much as $7,500 and more than seven workdays, according to research by David Maxfield and Joseph Grenny, two of the authors of Crucial Accountability.

“It takes two people to have a conversation, although you wouldn’t know it when hearing how most challenging workplace conversations go.”

If your boss or colleague is avoiding you, critiquing your work, responding gruffly to your emails, or not responding to your communications at all, a difficult conversation may be looming. You can prepare in several ways:

  • Choose the right location – Many workspaces today are open plan. Find a room with some degree of privacy. If possible, meet remote team members face-to-face if broaching a particularly difficult topic (for example, a dismissal).
  • Prepare for the worst-case scenario – Your counterpart may or may not welcome your request for a talk. Irrespective of the response, remain calm. Focus on making him or her feel heard. Speak less and listen more. Ask clarifying questions, for instance, “Why do you feel this way?”
  • Anticipate success – Although you’ve prepared for the worst, you should also maintain a positive mind-set and expect the best. Don’t continue to push your point if your opponent has already conceded the argument.

To navigate tricky conversations, adopt seven principles: confidence, clarity, compassion, curiosity, compromise, credibility and courage.

Difficult conversations can be excruciatingly awkward. Following a horrid conversation with her boss, author Roberta Chinsky Matuson developed a framework based on seven principles that embraces the transformative potential of difficult conversations.

First, to discuss a tough topic, you must corral your confidence.

Once you’ve mentally prepared yourself to have a difficult conversation, embrace the first effective communication principle: confidence. Don’t waste time playing out imaginary conversations in your mind; you can’t solve issues without confronting them in reality. Write down your grievance. If you think the matter warrants a dialogue, schedule a real-life conversation. Prepare by jotting down bullet points to clarify your points.

“How can you possibly resolve a misunderstanding or an issue you may be having with someone if they have no idea there’s a problem? You can’t!”

If you find yourself second-guessing your perspective, dial up your confidence by building inner trust. Don’t be fickle – make a decision, and stick to it. Reflect on your past successes, and tell yourself a positive affirmation – for example, “I’m smart and capable” – each day to foster self-trust and self-worth. Tackle the conversations you feel most confident about first, building up your “trust account” before attempting to navigate a particularly high-stakes conversation. To establish trust, always be honest, do a favor for someone else before asking for a favor in return, always follow through on your promises, publicly extend praise and support to others, and admit and apologize for your mistakes.

Second, embrace clarity by identifying your desired outcome before engaging in conversation.

Without clarity, the second principle of effective communication, your discussion will lead to a dead end. Thus, before you schedule a tough conversation, define the purpose of the discussion and your desired outcome. Perhaps you want a co-worker to behave differently, for example. What are you willing to do to get what you want? Determine whether the end justifies the means. For instance, if you simply want to express your negativity and anger toward someone, then you might want to reconsider having it out, which could jeopardize your relationship or career. If someone’s behavior has made you unhappy, make the conversation productive by clarifying steps or actions you hope they could take to change. Reflect on whether you’re willing to take any actions to achieve your desired results. Is there any way in which you’re contributing to the problem?

“How often have you walked away, after chatting with someone, with a confused look on your face? The meeting may have lasted 30 minutes, or even longer, yet you still had no idea what transpired.”

Once you’ve clarified your own desired course of action and goal, assess whether it aligns with the other party’s in any way; achieving your desired outcome will be easier if you’re both working toward a shared objective. When asking the other person for a conversation, employ a manner that is appropriate to your relationship. You’d approach a casual acquaintance differently than a person you’ve known for years, for instance. Be mindful of timing; make your request at a quiet moment and not when the other person feels rushed or exhausted. Consider the other person’s preferred communication norms: Would he or she rather engage in small talk before having a serious conversation or tackle the core issue quickly, for example? Assess the other person’s character, too, and prepare yourself for possible reactions – including denial, anger and tears. For instance, if you’re confronting a worker who eschews accountability, use documented evidence of the behavior to prove your point.

No matter how the conversation unfolds, remain calm. If tempers flare, don’t take any criticism personally. Be respectful, even if you fail to see eye to eye. Remember that conflict is often the first step to improvement. Make sure you leave no room for misinterpretation. Speak clearly and directly, and stick to the facts. Listen carefully to your counterparty, and don’t enter the conversation with preconceived assumptions about him or her. Maintain an open mind.

Third, demonstrate compassion by communicating from a place of empathy.

The third principle for navigating thorny conversations is compassion – that is, the capacity to feel or understand another person’s experience. Compassion and empathy are not innate but skills you can practice and develop. When you show empathy and compassion for others, you will find common ground, which provides a good basis for overcoming differences. If you show people that you care about them as human beings, not just workers, they will be more likely to engage in challenging conversations.

“Acknowledging that someone may be going through a difficult time demonstrates to the other person that you are not just concerned about work – you also care about them as a person.”

If you struggle to show empathy or to imagine yourself in another person’s situation, your ego-based need to be right is likely hindering you from a better understanding of his or her experiences. Alternatively, you may be clinging to a story that prevents you from feeling empathy. Perhaps you have been telling yourself that you’ve gone above and beyond to support someone, who has been too lazy or unwilling to perform his or her role as you’d hoped. Let go of your biases and presume good intentions on behalf of the other person to ensure you don’t start conversations from a place of anger, resentment or defensiveness. Work on building rapport – for example, by discussing life outside of work to discover shared interests – to show you care. Be present and listen intently as the other person speaks. Be mindful of your nonverbal body language, even when you’re not speaking. If your gestures, posture, voice and facial expressions fail to align with your intended meaning, you’ll undermine your message. Remember, though, that some people may exploit individuals who exhibit too much empathy.

Fourth, be curious about others’ experiences, and ask the right questions.

Display curiosity, the fourth pillar of effective communication, to show you’re interested in others’ points of view, while building conversational momentum. Leaders often laud curiosity, yet, in practice, many stifle inquisitive minds. If you are dismissive when an employee asks a difficult question, you send a message that your workplace doesn’t value curiosity. When you fail to foster inquisitiveness in others, you erode their trust. Instead, lead by example: Nurture childlike curiosity within yourself, since curiosity drives innovation, and your employees will follow suit. Show others that you care about their perspective. Ask them open-ended questions, for example, “What’s your understanding of the problem?” or “Where do we go from here?”

“Curiosity allows us to think more deeply and explore options that we may not have seen had we accepted what was in front of us, without question.”

Be wary of asking questions in a way that others could interpret as judgmental, which can impede innovation and make workers fearful of taking risks. For example, if you interrogate an employee about why they’ve done something a particular way, using a sharp tone of voice, they’ll detect judgment. A judgmental person often disregards the perspectives of others, preferring instead to view the world through his or her own rigid lens. Try to display openness and curiosity, using words such as “that’s interesting” or “tell me more,” instead of “that’s wrong.” When you embrace curiosity, you approach problems more receptively, and you’ll be more open to options you may not have anticipated.

Fifth, compromise involves making concessions so that both participants feel they’ve won something.

The fifth principle for navigating sensitive, high-stakes conversations is compromise – that is, finding a resolution to a problem or a dispute whereby both sides make concessions. People who want to win at all costs, rather than resolve conflict, tend to engage in zero-sum, cutthroat negotiations. Compromising, by contrast, entails showing your counterpart respect and consideration, even if you don’t share his or her perspective.

“Disagreement isn’t necessarily a bad thing – that is, if we can disagree productively.”

To find common ground, try to understand why your dispute is occurring, which will help you better understand the importance of resolving your dispute. Do you both have a common goal, yet different ideas about how to reach it? Remember that there may be alternative ways to solve your problem, so remain open to other people’s ideas. Rather than manipulating others, focus instead on using your influence to guide them toward seeing the benefits of your perspective for themselves. People will be more likely to come around to your way of thinking if you make an effort to win their trust, if you haven’t overly damaged the relationship, and if your objectives are clear and specific.

Sixth, to build credibility, start by cultivating your self-belief.

To earn credibility, the sixth pillar of effective communication, build your reputation as a trustworthy colleague. Credibility is one of the most valuable forms of workplace capital, and establishing it often requires overcoming “imposter syndrome” – that is, self-doubt in your own talents, accomplishments and skills. For others to see you as credible and believe what you say, you need to demonstrate belief in yourself. Earning a degree in the field you’re interested in can help you build confidence and foster credibility, so invest time in formal education to overcome imposter syndrome. Read and research as much as you can about your field so you are well-versed in its various facets. Credibility doesn’t equate to perfection. While you earn credibility through producing consistently good work, you’ll seem more credible if you hold yourself accountable and admit your mistakes.

“No one is going to believe in you when you don’t believe in yourself.”

Your credibility hinges on others’ perceptions of you. If in doubt, ask your colleagues how credible you are. If people don’t confide in you or seek your advice, or if you get passed over for promotion, your credibility rating is likely low. Manage perceptions by reflecting on whether you’ve given anyone possible reasons to doubt your trustworthiness. If you communicate directly, people will be less likely to second-guess your authenticity. If you lack credibility, you can slowly change people’s perceptions through sustained discipline over months, or even a year, provided you didn’t engage in harmful behavior – for example, having sexual relationships with several employees or embezzling funds.

Earning credibility is more difficult for remote workers, since building rapport involves putting in face time. Thus, always turn your webcam on in meetings, and inject extra effort into staying in touch with your team. Strive to meet your deadlines, and inform your team straight away if you realize you will fall short. Always thank others for their help and contributions.

Seventh, summon courage to tackle the most difficult workplace conversations.

Overcoming your fear of difficult conversations requires a strong dose of the seventh principle: courage. You exhibit courage when you proceed with determination, despite being afraid to express your point of view. If you’re about to have a particularly high-stakes but necessary conversation, you may feel uncomfortable – and that’s OK. Remember that avoiding tough conversations doesn’t necessarily dodge discomfort. In fact, it can feel more excruciating in the long run to leave an issue unresolved. To marshal your courage, take small steps forward, such as scheduling a meeting to address the problematic issue. Setting the wheels in motion will help you to see what the next step ought to be, and you won’t feel so out of your depth. When you have courage, you “take your power back” – that is, you advocate for yourself and prevent others from manipulating you or taking advantage of you.

“How many times have you wanted to say something to someone but chose not to, and later wished you had stood up for yourself?”

By embracing the seven principles, you’ll see dramatic results in your ability to tackle high-stakes discussions. Reframe thorny conversations as opportunities to learn rather than convince, to take greater accountability, to overcome your assumptions and biases, to build connection rather than opposition, and to share your authentic truth.


The most important thing to take away from this is this:

The only thing worse than having difficult workplace discussions is not having difficult workplace discussions! Draw on the key principles of confidence, clarity, compassion, compromise, curiosity, credibility, and courage to communicate problems and resolve them successfully.

And here’s some actionable advice to get started: Don’t be blindsided by difficult conversations.

There are a few surefire signs that your boss is about to sit you down for a difficult discussion. They no longer seek out your opinion. Previously long conversations are now terminated after a minute or two. They avoid returning your calls or responding to your emails. If you’ve spotted one, or more, of these signs – act! Brush up on the seven principles of effective workplace communication and get ready to make your case.

About the author

Roberta Chinsky Matuson is a globally known thought leader who helps leaders achieve dramatic improvements in employee engagement, retention, productivity and profitability. Based in Brookline, Massachusetts, she is the CEO and founder of Matuson Consulting, where she works with Fortune 500 companies and mid-size, emerging companies to create teams that achieve extraordinary results. She is known globally as “The Talent Maximizer®.” She is a seasoned speaker and the author of five books and blogs for Fast Company, Glassdoor, Forbes, and Thrive Global. She is frequently cited in national media including The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Chicago Tribune,, and NPR.

Roberta Chinsky Matuson is the president of Matuson Consulting, a business management consultancy, and the author of Suddenly in Charge: Managing Up, Managing Down, Succeeding All Around.

Table of Contents

About the Author xi
Acknowledgments xiii

Introduction: The Seven Principles for Managing Difficult Conversations 1


Confidence: Trusting Yourself and the Other Party 21
The Land of Should Have, Could Have, Would Have 22
New Math: Why Things Aren’t Adding Up 24
The Problem with Having Conversations in Your Head 24
Trust Me: Why You Need to Trust Yourself 26
Signs You Don’t Trust Yourself (and What to Do about It) 33
Using Confidence to Navigate Difficult Conversations 36
Trust: The Cornerstone of All Relationships 39


Clarity: Making Your Point Clearly and Listening with an Open Mind 45
Let’s Be Clear Here 45
Establishing the Right Objective 48
The Four Factors to Consider When Preparing for a Difficult Conversation 53
Planning for the Worst and Expecting the Best 58
Assessing Your Readiness to Proceed 62
Handling Difficult Conversations Remotely 63
Keeping Your Cool When Things Heat Up 65
Can You Hear Me Now? 68
Listen, Don’t Assume 71
Why the Need to Be Right Can Bring about the Wrong Results 73


Compassion: Be Empathetic and Understanding 79
The Need for Compassion and Empathy 80
Putting Yourself in Someone Else’s Shoes 82
The Art of Building Rapport 85
Nonverbal Communication and Body Language 88
Slow Down to Speed Up the Conversation 91
Being Present 93
Hyper-empathy: Is There Such a Thing as Caring Too Much? 96


Curiosity: Asking Questions Rather Than Shutting Down 101
The Power of Inquisitiveness 102
Tapping into Your Inner Child 103
Why Curiosity Didn’t Kill the Cat 106
Stop Stifling Curiosity in Others 107
The Impact Curiosity Has on Conversations 112
Regaining Control When a Conversation Derails 116


Compromise: Earn Respect by Respecting Others 121
Achieving Mutual Respect 121
Finding Common Ground 126
You Cut, I’ll Choose 128
You Want Me to Do What? Using Influence To Get What You Need 131
Stepping Back to Move Forward 134
Dialing Down Highly Charged Conversations 136
Caution: Dead End Ahead 138
Knowing When to Stop Talking 140


Credibility: Recognizing Your Word Is Only as Good as Your Actions 145
What Credibility Is 145
What Credibility Is Not 151
The Power of Perception 153
Reading the Room: Is Your Credibility on the Decline? 155
Changing Perception: Can It Be Done? 160
Establishing Credibility with Remote Employees 162


Courage: Navigating the Obstacles 167
The Courage of Your Talent 167
Getting Comfortable with Discomfort 171
Office Politics: Navigating Highly Charged Conversations 174
Choosing Your Battles Wisely 180
Taking Your Power Back: Having the Courage to Stand Up and Advocate for Yourself 182


Bringing It All Together 187
Putting the Pieces Together 187
Out of This World Difficult Work Conversations 191
What to Do Next after an Awkward Conversation 194
Creating a Drama-Free Work Environment 197
Staying on Track 202
Keep Talking 204
Index 209

List of Tables
Table 2.1  Social Styles
Table 2.2  Conversation Readiness Assessment
Table 6.1  Credibility Assessment


Can We Talk? is a practical and insightful guide for anyone who wants to improve their communication skills and handle challenging conversations at work. The author, Roberta Chinsky Matuson, is a talent expert and executive coach who has helped many leaders and employees navigate difficult situations and achieve positive outcomes. In this book, she shares her wisdom and experience through real-life examples, tips, and scripts that can be applied to various scenarios.

The book is divided into three parts. The first part introduces the concept of changing the conversation, which means shifting the focus from blaming, avoiding, or judging to understanding, collaborating, and resolving. The author explains why changing the conversation is important and how it can benefit both parties and the organization. She also identifies the seven principles that enable effective communication: confidence, clarity, compassion, curiosity, compromise, credibility, and courage. These principles are the foundation of the book and are explored in more detail in the following chapters.

The second part of the book covers how to prepare for a difficult conversation, how to start it, and how to manage it. The author provides a framework for planning and conducting a productive dialogue that addresses the issue, respects the other person, and seeks a mutually agreeable solution. She also offers advice on how to deal with common challenges such as emotions, resistance, silence, interruptions, and distractions. She emphasizes the importance of listening actively, speaking respectfully, and framing positively to create a constructive atmosphere and foster trust.

The third part of the book focuses on how to apply the principles and skills to specific types of conversations that often occur at work. These include giving feedback, delivering bad news, apologizing, saying no, asking for help, negotiating, and resolving conflicts. The author illustrates each type of conversation with a case study that shows what went wrong and what could have been done better. She also provides sample scripts that demonstrate how to use the principles and skills in practice.

Principle 1: Create a Culture of Candor
The first principle emphasizes the importance of creating a culture of candor, where employees feel safe to speak up and express their opinions openly. Matuson argues that leaders should encourage open communication, provide feedback, and listen actively to foster an environment of trust and respect.

Principle 2: Use the Right Language
The second principle focuses on the language we use in difficult conversations. Matuson suggests using “I” statements instead of “you” statements, which can come across as accusatory. She also advises against using jargon or technical terms that may confuse or intimidate others. Instead, she recommends using clear, concise language that promotes understanding and respect.

Principle 3: Focus on the Issue, Not the Person
In the third principle, Matuson highlights the importance of focusing on the issue rather than attacking the person. She encourages readers to separate the problem from the individual and to avoid making personal attacks or assumptions. By doing so, we can maintain a productive conversation that addresses the root of the issue.

Principle 4: Listen Actively
The fourth principle emphasizes the value of active listening. Matuson stresses that we should listen carefully to the other person’s perspective, ask questions to clarify their views, and paraphrase their comments to ensure we understand their point of view. Active listening helps build trust and promotes constructive dialogue.

Principle 5: Avoid the Blame Game
The fifth principle discusses the dangers of the blame game, where individuals attribute problems to external factors rather than taking responsibility for their actions. Matuson advises against blaming others or making excuses, instead, encouraging us to focus on finding solutions and learning from our mistakes.

Principle 6: Seek to Understand
The sixth principle emphasizes the importance of seeking to understand the other person’s perspective. Matuson suggests that we should try to see things from the other person’s point of view, even if we disagree with them. By doing so, we can gain a deeper understanding of the issue and work towards a mutually beneficial solution.

Principle 7: Agree to Disagree
The final principle acknowledges that sometimes, despite our best efforts, we may not reach an agreement. Matuson argues that it’s essential to agree to disagree and move forward with a plan that works for everyone involved. This principle encourages us to find common ground, establish a way forward, and maintain a positive relationship, even when we don’t see eye-to-eye.

Can We Talk? is a valuable resource for anyone who wants to improve their communication skills and handle difficult conversations at work with confidence and grace. The book is easy to read, engaging, and informative. The author writes with a friendly and conversational tone that makes the reader feel like they are having a one-on-one coaching session with her. The examples are realistic and relevant, and the tips are actionable and helpful. The book is not only useful for leaders and managers, but also for employees at any level who want to communicate more effectively with their colleagues, bosses, clients, or customers.

In conclusion, “Can We Talk? Seven Principles for Managing Difficult Conversations at Work” by Roberta Chinsky Matuson is an insightful guide for managers and professionals looking to improve their communication skills and navigate challenging conversations effectively. The book provides practical advice and real-world examples that help readers understand how to create a culture of candor, use the right language, focus on the issue, listen actively, avoid the blame game, seek to understand, and agree to disagree. By applying these seven principles, individuals can confidently engage in productive and respectful dialogues that lead to positive outcomes and stronger relationships in the workplace.

I highly recommend this book to anyone who wants to learn how to change the conversation and achieve better results at work. By following the principles and skills in this book, you will be able to have more meaningful conversations that build relationships, enhance performance, and foster collaboration. You will also be able to avoid or overcome communication barriers that can cause misunderstandings, conflicts, or resentment. You will be able to express yourself clearly, listen empathetically, and negotiate fairly. You will be able to handle any difficult conversation with professionalism and poise.

Alex Lim is a certified book reviewer and editor with over 10 years of experience in the publishing industry. He has reviewed hundreds of books for reputable magazines and websites, such as The New York Times, The Guardian, and Goodreads. Alex has a master’s degree in comparative literature from Harvard University and a PhD in literary criticism from Oxford University. He is also the author of several acclaimed books on literary theory and analysis, such as The Art of Reading and How to Write a Book Review. Alex lives in London, England with his wife and two children. You can contact him at [email protected] or follow him on Website | Twitter | Facebook

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