How to Tell People What They Don't Want to Hear

When I ask people what they want to learn about, the most common answer is "how to handle difficult conversations," or as one friend put it, "how to tell people things they don’t want to hear."

Let’s use an example given to me by an old friend (and blog subscriber!). This person runs a company and often has to refuse plum assignments to valued employees or has to let long-time employees go when they are no longer a good fit for the company.

Imagine a valued employee comes to you asking for a plum assignment outside their normal area of expertise, e.g., your best salesperson wants to lead a big new marketing campaign. As good as she is at sales, you know she does not have the skills to do this important marketing task, and you cannot afford to risk the company’s reputation by letting her perform in an area where she is out of her depth. What do you say?

First, analyze the situation. It has multiple, competing goals, the main ones being to refuse her request to do the marketing task, and at the same time to maintain the relationship. There may be many other goals: don’t violate employment law, make yourself look good, protect the reputation of the company, let the employee know how you feel, keep the interaction brief, control your emotions, etc. Prioritizing all these goals, and then, in real time, trying to design messages that achieve all these goals, is hard.

What to Do or Say?

Simply refusing the request is not very hard. Everyone knows how to say no. The hard part is maintaining the relationship.

The keys are to:

  1. Set the stage for the conversation, framing it in a neutral and constructive way.
  2. Seek first to understand their perspective by asking questions.
  3. Make sure the other person feels heard by validating their experience and feelings.
  4. Communicate your decision and perspective.
  5. Communicate that you value and appreciate them and have affection for them in spite of your need to refuse their request (or do some other thing they don't want you to do).

Setting the Stage

At the start of a difficult interaction, it is helpful to set the stage, to orient you and the other person to the purpose (and perhaps the duration) of the talk. You might say something like:

Hi Kathy, I’ve been thinking about your request to handle the new marketing campaign. This is a topic that is important to both of us, so I wanted to have a chance to hear your perspective before I make a final decision. Can we step into my office? This might take 30 minutes or so.

A neutral, objective statement of purpose can be an effective way to start a challenging dialogue.

The Question is the Answer

We often say in our face-to-face training, “the question is the answer.” What we mean is that often the best thing to do at the beginning of a tough communication situation is to ask a question, or, as Steven Covey said, seek first to understand. This accomplishes at least two goals. It allows the other person to feel heard, and it orients you to their perspective, allowing you later to affirm and validate their feelings and thoughts.

There are other advantages, too. You get information by asking questions. You might lack important information about this difficult situation. Some of your assumptions may be way off base. Open-ended questions allow you to explore the other person’s version of events before you dive into the difficult issues.

You might start the interaction by saying:

Kathy, I want to discuss your request to lead the new marketing campaign. But first I wanted to hear more from you about how you are thinking about this situation, why you think you are a good fit for this role, and how you see the project fitting into your other responsibilities and career trajectory. Before I make my final decision, I want to make sure I understand where you’re coming from.

Refusing the Request

Refusing the request violates positive face. Like all of us, Kathy needs to feel valued, wanted, competent, and appreciated. She wants you to want all of that for her also. Refusing the request is intrinsically face-threatening, especially when the reason for the refusal is her lack of competence in a key area.

You can't refuse the request without communicating a message which at the very least implies, if not outright states, that she lacks the ability or talent to do the job.

And generally, you will want to refuse the request on the record so there is no ambiguity. Indirectness is not out of the question, but it’s risky. You don’t want to walk away from such a conversation thinking you have refused the request only to hear later that the employee interpreted your indirectness as a reluctant “yes” rather than an indirect “no.”

Brown and Levinson give us guidance in this type of situation. The key is to redress the threat to face. You are threatening positive face, your friend’s desire to feel valued and competent. So you have to talk about how you do value your friend, even though you are denying her request.

To do this, you might say:

Kathy, although I am denying your request to lead the new marketing campaign, I want you to know how much I value our relationship and your contribution to the company. You are one of our most talented salespeople, and much of our success is due to your continued excellence in leading our sales efforts.

This message explicitly addresses Kathy’s positive face wants. You can also disclaim and refute interpretations of your refusal that do not reflect well on you or Kathy:

It might seem like my refusal to grant this request means I don’t trust your judgment or leadership. I can see how you might interpret it in that way, but nothing could be further from the truth. In sales, there is no one whose judgment I trust more than yours, and nothing about this decision changes that.

Remember that at the heart of many difficult conversations are feelings and identity, and these two things are connected. We all have an identity, a sense of self that we are deeply, emotionally attached to. Threats to this identity (i.e., threats to face) provoke strong emotional reactions including anger, fear, sadness, and anxiety, the Big Four negative emotions. As a result, you must make an effort to observe, accurately identify, and then name and validate Kathy’s feelings. 

I suspect this is a very disappointing outcome for you and not at all what you wanted to hear. I can’t know exactly what you are feeling, but it appears my answer has made you sad, frustrated, and perhaps angry with me, and you might even be anxious about your future with the company. I respect those feelings, and I regret upsetting you. You may even see this as betrayal of our friendship. I want you to know how much I value your friendship, and I am so sorry to have to make a decision that upsets you in this way.

You might use altercasting, a technique that involves telling people about themselves in order to encourage them to behave in a particular way. If you want Kathy to respond in a mature and constructive way, you might say:

One of the things I’ve always respected about you is your maturity and resilience. As disappointing as this is, I know I can count on you to continue to lead our sales team with the same dedication, professionalism, and skill that you have always shown. And I'm grateful for that.

And it’s not only feelings you can acknowledge. To make another person feel heard, you should seek to understand and then reflect back as much of their perspective as you can, including their plans, goals and intentions.

I know you see the move to marketing as the next logical step in your career, and my refusal to let you lead this project might make you think that I am not interested in your advancement. But that’s not true. Although I cannot let you lead this project, I would like to explore ways in which we can help you achieve your goals. That might mean training, or taking a smaller role in the marketing team. Short of allowing you to lead the project, I’m open to your ideas.

It Takes Two to Tango

Obviously the real situation would be a dialogue, and you will have to adapt your contribution to what Kathy is saying and how she is reacting. Nevertheless, these principles still apply. Research and our practical experience in training shows that messages like the ones I’ve used as examples above are more effective than responses that may be more knee-jerk, defensive, hyper-rational, or filled with indirectness and obfuscation.


Difficult interactions are characterized by multiple competing goals, important consequences, intense emotions, identity concerns, little time to prepare, and the absence of stock, conventional solutions. The most common conflicting goals involve the need to do an unpleasant (face-threatening) task while simultaneously preserving the relationship.

The keys are to (1) set the stage for the conversation, framing it in a neutral and constructive way; (2) seek first to understand their perspective by asking questions; (3) make sure the other person feels heard by validating their experience and feelings; (4) communicate your decision and perspective; and (5) communicate that you value and appreciate them and have affection for them in spite of your need to do something they don't like or want.

In the heat of the moment, it will be challenging to do all of these things, but with practice, it is possible to get much better at these difficult conversations, and in doing so to maintain relationships while still accomplishing important goals for ourselves and the complex organizations we work within.

I’m eager to hear what you think. What strategies and techniques do you use in your most challenging interactions?