Business psychology

Six words to make difficult conversations easier

- December 26, 2018 3 MIN READ

Like many people, I really don’t like confrontations or difficult conversations. I’d rather address my frustrations through interpretive juggling, or send someone a written note via tortoise while I dig a hole in the backyard and live out the rest of my life as an aphid. I already meet the height requirement.

The formula I’m sharing today won’t inspire you to instantly become a Viking, but it may help during those times when a confrontation is absolutely necessary.

All you have to do is make a statement that uses three two-word statements.

  • I notice
  • I imagine
  • I feel

This formula is covered in Petrea King’s book, Your Life Matters – The Power of Living Now.

How it works

  • I notice

Describe the situation or problem you’re currently experiencing.

  • I imagine

Express what the other person may be thinking, experiencing and/or feeling.

  • I feel

Share how you feel about the situation.


Let’s a say a client hasn’t paid you on time. Saying, “You haven’t paid your invoice and I need it paid immediately,” certainly gets your point across, but it has an attacking tone, and may not achieve the desired goal.

Alternatively, you could say: “I notice the invoice from last month hasn’t been paid. I imagine you’re quite busy, but I feel disappointed because I completed the work promptly and you were thrilled with the results.”

The second approach is calmer and less antagonistic.

Why it works

As Petrea King writes, “When we use this formula – perhaps not with the exact words – we’re endeavouring firstly, to describe the behaviour or the situation that we see is happening. Secondly, we’re endeavouring to compassionately understand how it might be for the other person, and thirdly, we’re letting the person know how we’re feeling about the situation. This formula conveys that the other person is not the problem. It’s as if we stand hand-in-hand together looking at the problem rather than seeing each other as the problem.”

Expanding on the formula

In business situations particularly, I think it’s useful to add a question to the end of the formula. This will expedite a resolution and ensure the conversation keeps flowing.

This means the previous invoice-avoiding example could finish with: “Can you provide an indication of when it will be paid?”

If the client says they’ll pay next week, and they don’t, then the next conversation’s question could be, “Is there a barrier to paying the invoice?” If there is, maybe a payment plan could work. Receiving smaller payments is better than no payments at all.

More examples

You can tailor these examples to your own specific needs and situations.

  • Problem: Not providing feedback

Conversation: I notice you haven’t had a chance to supply feedback on the logo designs. I imagine it’s difficult to choose from the three options. I feel concerned though, because the deadline won’t be met without timely feedback.  How can I help you with the process?”

  • Problem: A colleague makes comments about your weight

Conversation: “I notice you like to comment on my weight. I imagine you think it’s light-hearted and doesn’t hurt my feelings. I know you’re not intentionally trying to hurt me, but I do feel hurt. Can we talk about something else instead?”

  • Problem: Change of scope in your project

Conversation: I notice from your email that your requirements have changed since our first conversation. I imagine it’s because you’re getting new ideas, which is exciting. I feel a bit confused about the direction of the project though. Shall I invoice you for the work already completed, and we can re-start the process? Or shall I continue with your initial requirements?

Other handy questions to tack onto the end of your Notice-Imagine-Feel conversations are, “Can you help me understand what’s going on?” or “How can we resolve this?”

There are many ways to deal with difficult conversations, this is just one. Use this formula and you might notice it works really well.  Imagine the benefits as you feel more like an arbitrator and less like an aphid!

What are your thoughts on this formula? How do you deal with difficult conversations?