How to have that difficult conversation you’ve been putting off…

How to have that difficult conversation you've been putting off...
Sheela Hobden
Uncomfortable Conversations

I have previously written about working out how to decide when it’s time to take time out for your mental health.  One of the biggest barriers I found was the thought of the conversation with my line manager.  I wanted to write about that to help others in a potentially similar situation. 

Beyond that however, there are often many things we don’t want to have a conversation about and the model I share is perfect for any such situations.  I hope therefore, that this helps you now and in the future.

The content turned out to be a whole lot longer than I anticipated as I invited experiences from others who’d “trodden” that sometimes very muddy path.  So, I split the piece in two:

1 – Reflections on what makes it so uncomfortable and;

2- How to structure a conversation you don’t want to have [this could also be about many other things!]

I decided to leave the reflections piece because I thought that if you are in that stuck place, you are probably not interested in the hindsight, you just want some help “feeling better”.  So, let’s move to how to do it.

The model is a simple one based on NVC (Non Violent Communication).  It is here:

How to have that difficult conversation you've been putting off...
Sheela Hobden
Visual guide on stages of the process

The origins of this model are from Marshall Rosenberg.  His simple explanation stuck with me and I share it with many of my clients when they are facing a difficult situation.  We then work together to populate the segments to structure a conversation they want to have.  I have since heard the model described in other forms by Liane Davey and Dr Roxy Manning and I found these provided a little more depth.  I will add links to their work in the resources section at the end. 

What follows is what seems to have been working for my clients and I, as well as from collecting nuggets of wisdom gathered during those conversations.

How to have that difficult conversation you've been putting off...
Sheela Hobden

NOTICE (Observations):

This is all about observation.  Observable, factual pieces of information that anyone would be able to see.  Caveat to that is that there could be things that are visible to you but not others (e.g. what is happening when you are on your own) or maybe the issues are with someone else’s behaviour and they aren’t/don’t have the self-awareness to spot it.  For example:  what if your line manager is part of the problem?  The chances are that they may not be aware that what they are doing is having an impact on you.  This is of course, why it’s SO hard to put these points across.  If you don’t though…who will? 

So, what are you noticing happening around you?  What are the triggers.  This could be systems, processes or the behaviours of others.

NOTE:  If you are looking at this from the perspective of “do I need time out”, then please do take a look at the first article in the series for the things people were noticing changed too.

How to have that difficult conversation you've been putting off...
Sheela Hobden

 IMPACT (Experiences/Feelings/Behaviours):

This section is about the impact that whatever is going on,  is having on you personally.  Nobody can argue with the experiences, feelings and thoughts you are having because they are yours.  We can use the messages our body gives us and the impact of that (e.g. my heart is always racing when I hear you say xx).  It can also be expressed with the root as well (e.g. I feel x, because of y) which as an example, might sound like “I feel frustrated because I don’t feel I am heard”.  Having said it is the personal impact, there may be things that you are noticing where the impacts are more observable impacts and you could include those too.  For example, “I see x happening, and that is/has the potential to impact patient care”.

NOTE:  Again, if you are reading on from the article “do I need time out?”, take a look at what people said was the impact on them and what their eventual triggers were.

How to have that difficult conversation you've been putting off...
Sheela Hobden


What is it that YOU need?  This could be what you need to do yourself or what you need from others around you.  If it’s hard to clarify what you need, then it will be very difficult for anyone to provide any kind of support or change.  The context for every individual of course, is different.

Example – I need a couple of weeks with nothing to do with work.  I don’t have the resources to deal with it.  I am worried X might happen if I don’t take care of myself in this way.

During my time out, I found that messages or mails, which on the surface were enquiring as to how I was, were enough to tangle up my thought process.  However well-intentioned the mail might have been, my mind was in a place of “they are pushing me to get back to work”.  I still remember that sick feeling of seeing the name pop up in my inbox.

NOTE:  Take a look at the previous article, which shared the things people did that helped them recover, as this might give you some ideas on what could be helpful.

How to have that difficult conversation you've been putting off...
Sheela Hobden


What exactly is it you are asking for from the other person?

Following on from above request example, that you need time out from work.  The ask might be “I request that I receive no communication in any form from work”. 

You might need to be explicit about that. 

If that need is important, then what is the request of yourself too.  What might you need to ask of yourself?  (For example, if your habit of scrolling social media is dragging you down, what might you need to do to begin to address this?).  It’s a really good idea here to have several ideas for the request so that everything is not riding on it and you have a plan b.

For Mental Health, there are of course legal, reasonable adjustments that can be requested (do check NHS Health at Work or MIND site for further details).

So, now you have a plan for what you want to say but any conversation is two-way, so we need to DO BOTH SIDES: there’s also another way to apply this model which is super helpful given we may not be in our “rational” thinking zone. 

During the conversation pay attention to the 4 stages:

  • NOTICE – What’s going on?  What did they ACTUALLY say? Take a moment to process what has been said in any conversation to check for bias or selective hearing/conditioning.  You may have assumptions you are taking to this conversation and its really important to try to hold back from those and notice the facts.
  • IMPACT – What impact is this conversation having on them?  It may be making them feel uncomfortable.  Whilst this is not your responsibility, it will impact the conversation so being able to see any shifts will be useful to recognise.  It is worth noting that taking on differing perspectives of the situation is not only a strength, but supports your well-being.  In studies (Valk, 2017), it was found cortisol reduced by 51% where people practiced this (and other things such as non-judgemental listening and mindfulness).
  • NEED – What do they need now? They may need further information from you, they may need time to digest what has been said. There is nothing wrong with taking a pause, in fact, its likely to be highly beneficial to give everyone the thinking space to process.
  • REQUEST – What is the mutual request between the two of you?  In Liane Davey’s work, she talks about “how do we solve this from here?”. So often, needs and requests are left hanging and there is great work to be done in partnering, to come to an arrangement that is mutually beneficial, an agreement that both parties can make sense of.  We both have a goal in this situation,  finding the level where that mutual goal sits and how you both connect with each other’s goal is really key.

What is the difference between NEED and REQUEST?

NEED, relates to the “unmet” need that you have, for example say you have a need for transparency. You might express that need, then go on to make the REQUEST for what will help meet that need, which might be regular, open communication, for example. The phrase used in one of the listed in one of the recommended resources is:

“how do we solve from here?” 

Liane Davey, The Good Fight

It is so often in conversation that the observations and impacts are identified but it doesn’t go deeper, into the “so what do we do about it?”.  The closer we can get to each other’s needs, values, beliefs, and find connection, the smoother the ride will be.


This all sounds very organised and planned which is not usually how we might be acting at difficult times.  The clearer we can be on what we actually need to resolve any situation however, the more chance we have of getting our needs met.

  • If you don’t – who will?
  • How long will you wait?
  • What will happen if you do nothing about this?

YOU are the only person that can take control and do something about this.

It may not feel like a choice because the alternatives feel so difficult but ultimately, there is a choice. 

Finally, what happens if you consider it a “complex” conversation rather than a “difficult” one? The language we is a powerful influencer.

What now?


As I set out earlier, I gather information on lots of topics in support of others  however I am not an expert, so here are the resources and reading I mentioned:

How did this land with you?

I really would like to hear, so do get in touch and share your experience or comment.

Sheela Hobden

Sheela Hobden is a Coach at bluegreen Coaching.  Following her own mental health battles, she now coaches individuals, runs training sessions and speaks at conferences.  She has a real passion for helping medics and healthcare professionals take as much care of themselves as they do their patients in whatever life or career conundrums they face!  She is also a Mentor Coach and Coach Supervisor. She has a PGCERT in Business and Personal Coaching, holds PCC member status with the ICF and is CIPD qualified. She challenges herself with ultra distance running and Ironman.  Find her at or swimming in the sea, in Poole, Dorset

Get more ideas and tips by joining her newsletter tribe – sign up below!

Better still, book in to speak with her directly?