Difficult conversation? No worries, just remember – S.O.S.

December 15, 2011

Have you ever been in a situation where you had to have a difficult conversation with someone?  I imagine we all have.  It’s tough – you get deflated, you dread having any kind of interaction with the other person, and you can barely focus on anything else.

Part of the reason why I used to struggle so much was because I would basically wing it when I finally sat down with the other person.  And let me tell you, winging it was not the best approach.

Inspired by Raman Ohri and Tom Sant, I wanted to share how I approach difficult conversations, now.

Having a difficult conversation can be hard.  (Duh.)  In order to organize your thoughts, it helps to have some structure. Without a structure to lean on, it is more difficult to have a healthy and constructive conversation.  Your intentions may get missed, or people may get hurt.  Ultimately, you may do more harm than good.

So when you’re in the difficult position of having a difficult conversation, remember this familiar little acronym – S.O.S. (Symptoms, Outcomes, Solutions).


Take a snapshot of today, and describe (from your point of view) what you see.  Keep it about you, and your point of view, though.  And try not to project a perceived behavior or motive onto the other person.

An example of projecting would be “You aren’t doing X”.  When the symptom is actually “I don’t know what the status of X is.”


Forecast a little.  Describe how you see things turning out if we don’t address the symptoms.
Outcomes are helpful to paint a picture of what is not acceptable to you. They’re also helpful in exposing differences in context and perspective – maybe the bad outcome you fear isn’t actually a big deal or isn’t something anyone thought about. You won’t know until you have that conversation.


No, you shouldn’t expect to come up with the solution on your own.  But you should think about possible solutions and offer them in an emotionally detached manner – “here are some things that might work, but I don’t know if they are the right solution”.  At the very least, try to get some of your assumptions validated.

Another “trick” is to write each of the Symptoms, Outcomes, and Solutions out in complete sentences.  By writing them down, you’re forcing yourself to put enough thought into it to have a discussion.  It has the added benefit to keep you on track during your discussion, should you get side-tracked.

So, when you are about to have a difficult conversation, just remember S.O.S.