You Can Learn to Navigate Difficult Conversations

Six Tips to Achieve Conversation Success – By John R. Stoker

For 13 summers I ran the rapids on the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon as a white water guide. Years later as a leadership development consultant, I came to recognize that running the rapids is a metaphor for the challenge of holding a difficult conversation. Hopefully the following river story will bring some perspective to handling your most difficult conversations. 

On June 17, 1983, I experienced the highest water I had ever seen on the Colorado River. Here’s the entry from my river journal about that day:

What a day today was! The river must have been running at 85,000 cfs. (Cubic feet per second is approximately one acre square covered by almost two feet of water passing one point in one second.) Most of the rapids were washed out by the high water except for Crystal Creek. All week I have felt like my raft was nothing more than a leaf in the midst of mountainous waves, exploding foam, and unrelenting currents of water. As we approached Crystal Creek, from the top of the rapid I could see the monstrous hole at the bottom, so we decided to pull over and take a look.

Tom (my fellow guide) and I tied up above the rapid and then hiked down along the river bank to see what we were in for. We took a moment to identify a safe path past the hole and determine the direction of the current. Then we headed back to the boats. Needless to say, I was nervous.

I went first. From the top, I could see that the hole at the bottom extended from the left of the rock wall across half of the river. The hole and wave at the bottom were bigger than I had ever seen them. The hole was churning water and foam 35 feet high. I started my run on the left at a 45° angle. Three pressure waves at the upper left of the hole must have been 20 feet high. The last one totally buried the boat in foam and water, and I was glad I had stuck a rag in the air intake so it wouldn’t suck water in and kill the motor.

Even though I was motoring to the right at full throttle, the power of the river current was pulling the boat into the hole sideways, which put us in danger of flipping. At the last minute, I was able to turn the boat to the left and into the wave on the right side of the hole. My boat exploded through the top of the wave and then down the back of the smooth, green swell. We made our way through the smaller rapids below the hole until we could finally turn around, face the boat upstream, and wait for Tom and his group to make their run.

Tom wasn’t so lucky. Try as he did, Tom couldn’t avoid being pulled into the hole, so he turned his boat to face the hole head on.  When his boat disappeared into the hole, I thought someone was dead for sure. Finally, his boat exploded up through the wave behind the hole. I was amazed that he made it through without flipping.  Luckily, only one person cut his hand, and no one fell off the boats.


There are a number of lessons I learned from my experiences running rapids that can be applied to holding difficult conversations.

1. Stop and Scout the Rapid

We pulled over took a look at the rapid from a safe vantage point before we made our run. When you hold a potentially difficult conversations you want to stop and think about the person and the situation you need to discuss. You might want to ask yourself the following questions:

  • What are the facts of the situation?
  • What do I want the outcome of the conversation to be?
  • How might this person respond emotionally?
  • What am I assuming about this person and the situation?
  • Are my assumptions correct?
  • What else do I need to know?

Thinking about the elements of the conversation and the direction you would like it to go will ensure that the outcome will be more successful than if you try to “go with the flow.”

2. Identify the Rocks and Holes

Rocks just under the surface of the water can cut a boat in half, knock people out of the boat, or hang the boat up. A hole is created by large amounts of water running over a huge rock. The rush of the water over the rock creates an hydraulic pressure wave that explodes back on itself. When you hit one of these dangerous steep holes in a rapid, it feels like you drove the boat off a cliff and into a wall. Avoid them whenever possible.

Sometimes people themselves can be like rocks or holes in the river of our conversation. They may try to derail the conversation by changing the subject or by pushing their own agenda. They might create emotional drama to divert attention away from the issue or blame others (or you) for their problems or weaknesses. Perhaps they simply make incorrect assumptions. Take a moment to identify potential obstacles prior to the conversation so you can quickly navigate problems that arise. 

3. Plan the Process and the Path

Tom and I studied the rapid to identify the safest path and then created a plan for making our way through. Using similar tactics to navigate tricky conversations will help you achieve the best possible outcome. We have devised a simple four-step process for navigation of any difficult conversation:

Initiate – Begin the conversation, share data, and your thinking about the data
Discover – Ask questions to confirm your thinking and gain understanding of the other person’s perspective
Connect – Summarize your mutual understanding 
Build – Formulate a plan for achieving a specific outcome

Following this process allows you to know how to start, keep track of where you are at any time in the conversation, and know when you have completed your desired goal. 

4. Expect the Unexpected

Once I was in the rapid, all kinds of dynamics occurred that I had no way of anticipating—something that also happens during difficult conversations. When the unexpected occurs, the easiest thing to do is to ask questions, which allows you to explore and navigate the conversational rapid. Knowledge is power; questions give you control of the conversation. Not only will you increase your understanding, but you will also be able to decide where you want to steer the conversation next.

5. Remain Calm

Trying to run a difficult rapid in a state of high emotion robs you of your ability to think and respond quickly. In conversation you cannot allow your emotions or the other person’s emotional state to get the best of you. If the other person becomes emotional, you must remain calm and not take their response personally. One way to defuse emotional reactions is to ask questions that shift the brain out of reactive-protective mode into logical-rational mode. Be sure to give your full attention to what the other person is saying and truly listen to their responses.

6. Enjoy the Ride

To be honest, sometimes the rapid is most enjoyable when it is over. When you embark on a difficult conversation, however, you want to be not only a participant, but also an observer of what is happening in the moment. When you begin to notice all the dynamics taking place, you will be in a position to manage the ebb and flow of the conversation. Remember, you can’t manage what you can’t see, so adopt an attitude of discovery and be open to what you can learn on the way.

Chances are, your difficult conversation will not be as life-threatening as running a big rapid like the one at Crystal Creek—but you may genuinely feel like there are similar risks involved. Use these skills for navigating difficult conversations, and they will help you eliminate your fears, find a safe path, create a plan, and successfully navigate the conversation to your satisfaction.

Ready for #REALconversations & start #OvercomingFakeTalk? Find this “must read” by @JohnRStoker on Amazon: {Click to Tweet}

image2-small-20For over 20 years, John R. Stoker has been facilitating and speaking to audiences, helping them to improve their thinking and communicating skills. He is an expert in communications who believes the human capacity to achieve astonishing results depends on the individual’s ability to interact with others. 

John holds a Master’s Degree in Organizational Behavior as well as a J.D. Degree. His landmark book, Overcoming Fake Talk, is both entertaining and engaging, and it presents skills that help readers talk about what matters most.

In the past, John worked as a practicing criminal defense attorney, spent summers as a Grand Canyon white-water guide, and taught on the university level for 13 years. John has been happily married since 1994 and he and his wife Stephanie are the proud parents of five children.

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