How to contract difficult conversations

The search for justice can easily become self-defeating

This ends when we all say no

I have had quite a lot of “difficult conversations” recently. Some have well-defined boundaries with professionals, others are unconstrained dumps by friends struggling to come to terms with their self-inflicted predicament. I had to tell one family member today to come back later with some basic manners and respect; such are our times.

A lot of the people I talk with are in the business of “truth and justice”. Many of us have personal stories to tell of victimhood and wounds we carry. Reasonable people can differ over what is true, but the nature of a lie is far clearer and less debatable; the scars are all too real. Where there is loss and harm a large body of law exists to offer us the hope of justice, or failing that the consolation of finality.

It is very easy to become over-insistent that others get the benefit of our bad experiences, as if we need to personally rebalance the karma of the universe. A legitimate desire for our traumas be known drives us to speak our truth. But that sets up a difficult predicament. Who wants to hear that they are an easy target for conmen, thieves, or conspiracies of silence?

A wonderful and very traumatised woman called me today, referred by a friend who campaigns for justice in her own case of medical wrongdoing. This caller has spent a decade being abused by the medical system after the horrific death of her baby, with a cover-up that reaches the highest levels. I will supply the gory details another day.

Since people who listen, understand, and care seem to be rare she immediately unloaded upon me… for over an hour. I took a break for a meal, my “social interface” melted with overload. As my brain circuits recovered, I reflected upon the underlying problem of why she had struggled for so long to get justice.

Here are the notes I made before calling her back, with only light editing for clarity (as I adore clarity). They may be of some help to you in structuring your own “difficult conversations”.

Let’s take 5 minutes to pause and let me give you some friendly feedback and advice.
Is this OK?

A friend of NAME is a friend of mine; you are my friend.
Friends are people who sometimes tell you what you don’t want to hear:
If you were not a friend of NAME I would have stopped you after 5 minutes.
I carried on as I understand the significance of your case, and took notes.
I knew the right thing to do was to capture what you had to say.

The situation:

You are a victim of an extreme miscarriage of justice, as well as an exemplar of a wider problem of corruption that now affects everyone.
I am a solo campaigner for justice; an introvert; and a highly experienced international consultant to executive level.
These are very emotive topics; trauma for everyone is involved.
We don’t know each other; only have a shared friend of NAME.
You spoke for 75 minutes; I took 2600 words of notes.
I understand the national importance of your case.

The complication:

I am a victim of injustice too; I am fighting my own fights for my own children, and also caring for a traumatised and disabled friend.
I have finite energy and attention.
I was supposed to be on a work call for those 75 minutes — with a colleague in America. That’s OK, it’s my choice.
You launched in without agreeing with me the purpose of our call, or any constraints.
You didn’t stop speaking to see if we had shared understanding; didn’t give me any structure up front; it was a very detailed exposition, with me not knowing where we are going or when we will arrive.

I am now completely exhausted!

When I said I needed to stop to have dinner, you didn’t respect that boundary, and carried on. It is not endearing; painful to endure.

The unwanted outcome:

When you act like this people run away; the topic is too difficult, and you come over as over-demanding, insensitive, disrespectful.
This invites the victim, persecutor, rescuer triangle — making others feel attacked who have no direct stake in your situation. You want them to become the rescuer, but they feel like a victim with you as the persecutor.
It is also a form of emotional blackmail — “you have to take on my issue now as I have told you about my hurt”.


Nobody comes to the rescue; you can end up (like NAME) fighting for decades without seeing justice.

The wanted outcome:

Instead you want people to be drawn in, and part of a wider movement.
This means you need to understand the needs of others FIRST in order to be heard.
Reciprocity, responsibility, respect — these are the basis of strong and stable relationships as part of a team.
Those imply the need to establish boundaries, constraints, and shared goals.


Make collective stepwise progress towards those goals, however small the steps are.

The question:

How to “unstick” the fight for justice?

The answer:

This is a process problem: listen first; establish needs of the other.
Contract the conversation, with a shared goal and outcome.
Deliver the outcome within the constraints.
Then reflect – re-orientate, resource, recruit, etc.
Iterate until you win!

The rest of our call can be practise for a CONTRACTING CONVERSATION — because that’s your real problem.

Business consulting aficionados will recognise the Minto Pyramid Principle being used: establish facts, assert the issue with the facts, extrapolate to the unhappy ending with business as usual (thesis), posit the benefit of a change in direction (antithesis), identify the “fulcrum” question that separates them, and explain what change in behaviour or policy is needed to switch fates.

Note how I acted out my own advice at the front, and contracted the feedback with her (i.e. gestalt method). She took the feedback on board, because it was offered with suitable kindness. We then had a contracting conversation and agreed to talk again next week. She wanted one thing, I something a bit different, and we found the way forward that works for us both.

Teams get things done that individuals cannot. Trauma makes building a team to tackle criminal injustice hard. The only way is by learning how to have difficult conversations.