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Having a Difficult Conversation

July 20, 2013 2 Comments

Difficult conversationSome time ago, I needed to have a very difficult conversation with one of my counseling students.

He just wasn’t cutting it. Although his heart was in the right place, his understanding and his sense of responsibility and initiative were not up to the level needed for a soon-to-be counselor.  He also did not communicate clearly or reliably. And, in a profession where you’re dealing with people’s lives, these things really matter.

I had already coached him, guided him, set him up with peer support, and nothing had made much of a difference.

At the same time, I couldn’t bear the thought of failing him.  He had a lot to give and a strong wish to give it.

I was stuck between a boulder and a concrete wall.

I was dreading talking to this student, absolutely dreading this difficult conversation. I was expecting him to get very angry at me and I could not picture a satisfactory outcome. I didn’t know what to do. And what clearly was not going to work was for me to talk to him while stewing in irritation about his shortcomings. I knew that I could not have a constructive conversation with him from that place.

Like all semesters, however, this one was coming to an end and a decision had to be made.

I ran my predicament by a trusted colleague who modeled speaking to him from a place of what’s really strong about him, what really is a valuable asset that he has, followed by what I see him needing and what I strongly suggest he get done in order to take care of that.

When he arrived early at the next class, I took the opportunity to ask him what he was hoping to accomplish with his degree and where he hoped to go with it. By doing that, I entered the realm of his potential and passion. And he said something that really moved me.

First he said, “I want to get a PhD.” When I asked, “Where do you want to go from there?” he said, “Well, you know those kids in Connecticut who witnessed that massacre?  I want to help  kids like that who’ve experienced trauma.” As he spoke, I heard and felt his deep commitment and personal connection to children in need.

I was so moved that when I had “my talk” with him later, privately, I very easily was able to tie in my wish for him to succeed. And all of a sudden, his shortcomings were things we needed to help him move through successfully. Notice, I said “we.” We had become a team.

Remarkably, my shift in perspective — from what’s wrong with him to what’s right with him — completely changed how I showed up and what affect I had. I was now grounded and present, curious and caring, listening and weighing in. I was able to hear him and he was able to hear me and receive a gift. Together, we mapped out a course of action for him to move forward and succeed in a way that required him to repeat some coursework and delay his graduation.

Instead of getting angry at me, my student’s eyes welled with tears as he thanked me. I could see him growing right in front of me.  Did I mention… I was growing too.

What could have been a stressful, divisive, difficult, unproductive exchange, instead was transformative for both of us.

The truth is, a difficult conversation is not so difficult when we get out of our own way. When we join with another, difficulty becomes discovery.

What difficult conversation have you faced? What did you discover?


What difficult conversation are you avoiding right now and why? How can I help you with it?

Feel free to leave your answers in the comments, below.

Everything said here will be held with care and respect.


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© 2013 Naaz Hosseini. All Rights Reserved. Copying or resposting this content without written permission is strictly prohibited.

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About the Author:

Naaz Hosseini

Naaz Hosseini is a communication coach and voice empowerment coach. She developed Powerful Presence™ coaching to help corporate and entrepreneurial women step into their vocal power to command the attention and respect they deserve. As a NYS Licensed Psychoanalyst and Qualified Gestalt Therapist, she supervises and trains mental health counselors at Teachers College Columbia University and therapists at the Gestalt Center for Psychotherapy and Training. She served as visiting faculty at the Harvard Graduate School of Education Project Zero Summer Institute for ten years where Howard Gardner has said, “With enthusiasm, I recommend Naaz Hosseini, a pioneer in using the voice and the body for understanding.”

Comments (2)

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  1. Thanks for this wonderful story, Naaz! I have come to see “difficult” people in my life as my teachers. Just like the young man in your story, certain people have rubbed me the wrong way or caused me much consternation when I have to deal with them. Yet these people show me things about myself that I haven’t seen before and help me grow – just as you described. I like how you framed your change of perspective in connecting to the young man’s passions and positive points. Every person has something going for them, even when it is hard to see. Thanks for this wonderful reminder that everything truly IS in the eye of the beholder, and sometimes I need to open my eye wider!

    • Thanks for your thoughtful reply, Sonya! It’s so true that difficult situations are our greatest teachers. This young man really was not functioning adequately. How profound and satisfying it was to be able to get out of my own way and speak to his bigger self. And then, how satisfying that he met the occasion. What a difference for him and any clients or colleagues he might have in the future. I agree with you that this is a great reminder of the power of how we choose to see each other.

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