The Four C's of Difficult Situations
Summary: As an emerging leader, your ability to handle the difficult situations and conversations will define your leadership brand. Here's some tips.
Written by Alistair Gordon 02 Jun 2018


It doesn’t matter whether it is a difficult situation, a difficult person, a difficult conversation, or even a difficult manager, your ability as an emerging leader to handle the difficult will define your leadership brand. Here’s how to deal deftly with the difficult.

When we run sessions asking people why they avoid dealing with difficult situations, the answers are always the same. First, they don’t believe they know how to do it properly. They are worried about making a mistake. Second, they believe they are supposed to have the answer. Third, they are worried about the fallout from the difficult situation. Most leaders (emerging and senior alike) admit to imagining terrible scenes: tears, anger, people storming out, and endless meetings with the HR team trying to sort it out.

Our suggestion for you – early in your leadership career – is to follow the four C’s of difficult situations.

1. Courage

Easy to write and surprising easy to find when you get your head right. The courage we’re talking about is addressing the difficult situation, not solving it. There is a huge difference in mindset here. By having the courage to address the issues, you’re raising it as an issue with those concerned. You might do so saying: “Look, I’m not sure I know the answer…,” or “What do you think are the possible solutions?”. Most leaders put off difficult situations until they believe they have found an answer. You’ll find, once you have found the courage to address an issue a few times, you’ll quickly gain the confidence to do so more often and more quickly.

2. Think Counter-Intuitively

This is particularly important for a new leader. Most of the notions we have in our head are wrong. For example, leaders believe they have to have all the answers. They don’t. We think that we might damage our leadership credentials by handling the difficult situation poorly. Actually, the opposite is true: by not handling it, we damage our leadership brand. We believe that people want to avoid having the difficult conversation. They don’t: they want you to raise it. The lack of clarity or uncertainty is killing them. We worry we might upset people by raising an issue. We upset them by not doing so. Don’t believe your first opinion – examine it and see whether thinking counter-intuitively helps you find the courage to raise the issue straight away.

3. Collaborate

As an emerging leader, you don’t have to struggle with these issues on your own. Find a couple of trusted peers and form a collaborative circle where you can openly discuss issues that are difficult. The whole Fastlead program is based on this very powerful concept. You’ll quickly find that everyone has these problems, not just you. There are many ways to handle the difficult, not just one. And no one knows exactly the right way to do everything. Working collaboratively helps you plan, prepare and practice conversations, which mean you deliver them effectively and with confidence.

4. Coach

Rely heavily on coaching skills to get you through difficult conversations. Coaching skills require you to ask lots of questions to understand everyone’s point of view, everyone’s version of the truth, how everyone saw the situation. Use questions to tease out possible solutions. Ask questions to explore the pros and cons of these situations. Ask, don’t tell. Several possible answers will emerge and you’ll be able to make a call as to which is the right way to go. By applying these four C’s to difficult situations, you’ll be seen as a very capable, considerate, calm and courageous leader.


It’s about addressing the problem, not solving it.

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