Tips for Communicating Effectively During Difficult Situations

Published February 14, 2019

By José I. Rodríguez, Ph.D.,
Professor of Communication Studies
CSULB BUILD’s Multicultural Innovation Coordinator

There’s no doubt that communication is at the heart of human connection. It is foundational. It is fundamental. But figuring out what to say and how to say it can be a struggle, especially when it comes to effective conversations because successful messaging can be a real challenge. Discovering the best way to engage others, captivate your research crew, and connect with the world that exists outside your thought bubble can feel like a mind-numbing maze.

Last semester, during a CSULB BUILD Learning Community session, I shared some ethical communication strategies that can help you manage conversations more mindfully and collaboratively when confronted with challenging situations.

Communicating with Others in a Compassionate Manner

Our discussion was grounded in the concept of moral status, which refers to treating other people with consideration by giving importance to what they need, what they prefer or what would enhance their well-being (Warren, 1997).

With this ethical framework as a foundation, I defined two features of other-oriented messages:

  • Ethical content – a message that considers the other person by expressing authentic concern in a manner showing positive regard, with the intent of preventing or alleviating suffering by minimizing harmful consequences (Rodríguez, 2014).
  • Ethical performance – the process of engaging in other-regarding moral behavior, emanating from an ongoing perception of visceral concern for the welfare of a person, with the intent of preventing or alleviating suffering (Rodríguez, 2014).

The training included a four-step process, for enacting this ethical intent, based on the work of Terry Fralich (2012), that can help you manage challenging conversations, with a sense of empathy, solidarity, and self-care:

Step 1: Pause and notice your emotional responses. Practice halting and observing your emotional reactions, so that you can be aware of arousing content more quickly over time. Remind yourself that what is “coming up” for you is a reaction. Take a moment to notice. Bring your attention to the reaction. You might say, “Ah, there’s this feeling of anger.”

Step 2: Focus on your breath. Use slow, even breathing and allow the body to calm down by releasing tension in the immediate experience of respiration. Direct your focus to your breathing, allowing the body to soften with the flow of the breath.

Step 3: Reflect on your reaction. What is this response? Is there a pattern? Have you experienced this reaction before? How might this situation be a trigger, relating to a similar past experience?

Step 4: Make a conscious (deliberate) choice. What can you do that is useful? How can you behave in a helpful manner? How can you respond in ways that are preferable? What response can you enact that is most effective, humane, and compassionate?

Following this process can help you pause and reflect on the situation so that you can respond ethically and behave in a way that can facilitate a moment of solidarity for yourself and the other person. In this way, over time, you can cultivate a compassionate way of communicating with others when you feel triggered during challenging encounters.

Herein lies the essence of emotional intelligence: Realizing that you can’t control the emotions that arise for you and choosing (with a sense of heartfelt compassion) to express those feelings in a way that minimizes suffering for yourself and for others.

Re-framing Responses in Communication

Let’s be honest, when a behavior triggers you, you tend to create a story about the words and the actions of others in ways that may not be consistent with intended or objective reality. Therefore, when responding to a difficult situation, focus on what you saw, what you heard, and what you observed. Here are some suggested ways of re-framing your responses:

Rather than saying…

  • The fact of the matter is…
  • You never…
  • You don’t have a clue about…

Say this instead…

  • It seems to me…
  • The last three times…
  • I’m starting to think that…

Reframing what you say can minimize the projected, emotional charge of what you’re intending to convey. This conversational practice is also, more often than not, more honest, more clear-cut, and more compassionate than the unbridled expression of mindless arousal.

Once you’ve stated what you saw, heard or observed, then you can share your interpretation or opinion. You can follow-up by saying something like, “Am I missing something?” or “Am I getting this right” or “Is my interpretation in the ballpark?” or “Would you be willing to…?” The latter option can be an invitation for a follow-up conversation that can help prevent a similar situation in the future. For example, you might say, “Would you be willing to talk about this topic later this week?” This conversational move opens up a space for on-going dialogue that is much less confrontational and can clear up misunderstandings before they escalate unnecessarily.

You may discover, as if for the first time, that in practicing these mindful, conversational approaches you become a person worthy of connection. You become a competent communicator by focusing on what is needed most in the moment. You become a source of solidarity in moments that matter most by creating a sense of allowing, a sensation of caring.

And, perhaps most surprisingly, you experience freedom by allowing your being to inform your doing. You become free to be who you are and who you can be at any moment so that solidarity becomes something you invent with someone every single day.


Fralich, T. (2012).  Cultivating lasting happiness: A 7-step guide to mindfulness, 2nd Edition (PESI).

Rodríguez, J. I. (2014).  Interpersonal communication for contemporary living. Dubuque, IA: Kendall Hunt.

Warren, Mary Anne (1997). Moral status: Obligations to persons and other living things. New York: Oxford University Press.

NOTE: Portions of this adapted content are published in Interpersonal Communication for Contemporary Living, and Another View, focusing on useful strategies for managing relationships at work, at home, and at play.