Coaching Association of Canada

6 steps to help master the difficult conversation

Resolving issues informally involves approaching an individual about his or her conduct. This
often requires having difficult conversations, a skill that requires practice and experience to fully

You can use the steps in the NCCP Decision-making Model and integrate important communication skills — questioning and active listening, for example — to work through the issue. Doing all this takes time, but using a framework that helps you work through difficult issues is something you can do right away.

Let’s take a closer look at this 6-step framework.
*Information in this #CoachToolKit has been adapted from Stone, Patton, & Heen, 1999

  • 1. Identify the issue/state the problem 

    Use a third-story approach to get started

    When starting a difficult conversation with an individual about their conduct, think like a mediator and introduce the topic without expressing your own views. Introduce the conversation as an interest in learning more about the other person’s view. This is important for engaging the other person in the conversation and making the person feel comfortable sharing his or her perspectives.

    For example: I wanted to talk to you about what happened in the practice session this morning. I noticed that when Amy was slacking off, you asked her to do extra push-ups, and I wanted to get your perspective on the situation

    Listen carefully
    Once you’ve started the conversation, it’s important to listen to the other person’s comments. This will help the other person feel as if you are having a conversation where you are both expressing your views — as opposed to you simply telling the other person what to do. 

    Listen to the total meaning of what is being said
    Pay attention to both content and feelings
    Respond to feelings
    Ask open-ended questions
    Ask lots of questions of verification
    Seek confirmation from the speaker about what you think you have heard and understood
    Try to give the speaker the feeling that he/she has been heard

    Focus solely on words
    Ignore facial expressions
    Stick to the facts and only the facts
    Indicate personal agreement of disagreement with positions
    Tell the speaker not to be upset
    Lead the speaker with your views
    Allow your mind to dwell on how you will respond and what you think about the matter 

    Many individuals may be well intentioned but completely unaware of the harmful effects of their behaviour. It is important to learn why the individual uses harmful behaviours, as it helps you understand his or her perspective.

    For example:How do you feel about the situation? What were you trying to achieve?

    Reinforce positive attributes, attitudes, and behaviours
    Although the individual’s behaviour may be harmful and inappropriate, he or she may mean well. If this is the case, acknowledge the individual’s positive characteristics.

    For example: I think it’s great how passionate you are about the sport.

    Encourage self-reflection
    Reflecting on the potential impact of their practices can be a very effective way to encourage individuals to change their behaviour.

    For example: Did your words or actions make the athlete feel good about himself/herself?

  • 2. Determine a desirable outcome

    Problem-solve together
    Try to focus on mutual gain. This may make the change in action more appealing. At this stage, it may be useful to ask a leading question.

    For example: I think we would both agree that the most important thing is the health and safety of our athletes. Is that a fair assumption?

  • 3. Select possible options for action

    Problem-solve together
    Given what you and the individual have both learned, what would improve the situation in the future? Consider starting the discussion by asking ‘Are there any other ways to solve this problem?’ or ‘Is this the only option worth considering?’

  • 4. Agree on a course of action 

    Establish a course of action you both agree on
    After reviewing and evaluating options together, choose a course of action. It is important that the individual play a lead role in choosing the option, as it increases his or her commitment to it. If necessary, you can provide some suggestions and request feedback on the best option.

    Wrap up the conversation with a short statement on the option you have agreed on.

  • 5. Set up a follow-up meeting 

    After you have agreed on a course of action, it may be useful to ask the individual if he or she would be willing to meet again to discuss progress. Setting up this meeting establishes an opportunity to follow-up.

  • 6. Have a follow-up meeting 

    Reinforce positive attributes, attitudes, and behaviours, and acknowledge positive improvements. This gives the individual confidence in his or her change in behaviour and serves as a reminder of the previous conversation. At this stage, it is also important to ask the individual to re-reflect on the situation — it encourages both recognition of self-improvement and reflection on alternative courses of action.

    To be most effective, the conversation should be free of personal judgement, criticism, threats, and allegations.

For more information on travel management, consider the Empower +  module, part of the National Coaching Certification Program (NCCP) multi-sport modules series available through your Provincial or Territorial Coaching Representative