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Jan Hills

Head Heart + Brain


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Evidence-based agony aunt: starting difficult conversations


Our evidence-based agony aunt, Jan Hills, uses findings from neuroscience and psychology to tell you how to solve your organisational problems in brain-savvy ways, that work with the mind's natural tendecies and not against it. Got a problem you want her to look at it? Drop us a line at [email protected]. We'll get back quickly.


"When I need to have a difficult conversation I have no idea how to start it, I've had different advice such as announcing explicitly to the person it won't be easy. But what really works?"


This is a tricky one because difficult conversations are by their nature difficult!

My advice and what we teach people on our programmes on the topic is to get your own head in the right place. If you are framing this as difficult, telling yourself it’s going to be hard and imagining a poor outcome that is going to leak to the person you are having the conversation with.

The leaks will put them on the defensive.

Even those of us who think we can act cool and confident leak what we are feeling and unconscious parts of the brain, the parts designed to keep us safe, pick up the signals and react in a way which is protective.

This usually looks like defensive behaviour or lashing out – in other words fight or flight behaviour.

So decide why you are having the conversation, what a good outcome will be and most importantly how you need to feel to make it the most successful conversation it can be.

Put yourself into that frame of mind as you start the conversation.

One way to do this is to fake the feelings.

Amy Cuddy’s work has shown when we fake confidence the ‘confident chemicals’ in our brain activate and we actually become more confident. She advises spending two minutes in a power pose before a tricky meeting.

I know it sounds silly but everyone I have taught this to, no matter how sceptical they were, says it works.

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Jan Hills


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