4 strategies on how to have a difficult conversation in English

16 Sep 2022

Have you ever felt afraid of having a difficult conversation in English because you thought that you lacked the right English words to make your case?


Consider some of these statements and tell me if any of them resonate with you..

“I am never going to be able to convince them to change strategy because my English isn’t sophisticated enough”

“Words are what win arguments but unfortunately, I don’t have English words and am doomed to lose control of the argument.”

“My colleague can be so unreasonable. If I had better English, I’d be able to make them see my point of view.”

“I don’t know how I am going to explain to our suppliers that we’re dissatisfied with their lack of service because I am not fluent enough.” 


None of us wants to have a difficult conversation, especially if that conversation involves opposite points of view. You walk into that conversation already in either defence or attack mode. 


You assume the conversation won’t end well so you arm yourself with your words. You think your words are what will help you through the uncomfortable conversation. Words that say eloquence, mastery of your subject and authority. 


But words have an infuriating habit of deserting you when you need them most. And it’s even worse when it’s in your second, third or fourth language.


Is this a language problem or something else?


Let’s consider how your brain works
When you go into ‘fight’ mode, your emotions awaken. Your emotions trigger your primal brain into action ready to protect you and take over the prefrontal cortex activity of your brain, the one that controls your rational thoughts and your ability to use your words.


The more emotional and stressed you get, the more you struggle to find your words and the more often your mind goes blank leaving you in silent frustration. 


“I wanted to say much more but couldn’t find the words.” You walk away defeated and ashamed.


I bet this has also happened to you when having a difficult conversation in your first language.


Assuming this has happened, l want you to put to one side ‘your thoughts about your English’  and consider 4 communication strategies you could use instead to start having those difficult conversations. 



4 strategies that don’t rely on having ‘perfect’ English.


1/ Get curious

Rather than using your words to show you are right and the other person is wrong, aim to understand them by asking questions, seeking to understand and showing interest.

For example, if your client/supplier hasn’t been responding in a timely manner and when they reply, they’re not answering all the questions, ask them directly if there is an issue in your communication or if there’s something you’ve missed. Ask them how you can help them. Your willingness to listen will encourage them to talk and that’s when you can start communicating meaningfully.


2/ Don’t focus on convincing

Don’t let your main goal be to change the other person’s mind. It takes too many words and too much energy. Instead, encourage them to share their ideas and listen to understand them before responding (or not!). 


3/ Question your own point of view

Whilst you are confident that your point of view is worth expressing (and you’ve prepared beforehand all your arguments), be humble enough to accept that you don’t have the monopoly on the truth and that you’re open to changing your perspective. This will lead you to listen more reducing the pressure to find more words.


4/ Start with facts, not judgments or opinions

Carefully sharing facts to back up your point of view helps remove some of the emotional heat in the conversation. It also boosts your confidence because you’re relying on facts to make your case rather than extra words.



By shifting your focus from language to communication, you remove the emotional heat from the conversation. And that means your primal brain can retreat and allow your prefrontal cortex to take over again allowing you to think calmly, rationally and confidently with the English you have.



👉🏾 Which strategy above is your favourite? Do you have any other communication strategies that have worked for you?  Share your answer in the comments.