Need to have a Difficult Conversation? Prepare like a Navy SEAL by Dionne Dury, Operations Director, Resolution at Work

March 28th, 2018

What does a Navy SEAL have to do with having a difficult conversation you might ask?

Whilst the context in which we have difficult conversations in the workplace is very different, the strategies and training used by Navy SEALs to prepare them to become hostage and crisis negotiators are still helpful and relevant.

Although it is not a matter of life or death when you need to have a difficult conversation with a member of your team, it can still be stressful and emotional. The techniques adopted by the Navy SEALs are things that we could all try when we are faced with these situations. These comprise four strategies; goal setting, mental rehearsal, self-talk motivation and emotional control.

  1. Goal setting

Crisis negotiators are taught to 1) Have a goal and 2) have a plan to achieve it. The goal for the Navy SEAL, in a crisis situation, is to influence the subject to the point of peaceful voluntary compliance and the Navy SEAL will continually check in with themselves to see whether their actions are helping or hindering that goal.

Applying that principle to a difficult conversation, it is important to take time to consider what your goal is and how you are going to go about achieving that goal.

For example, a number of your team have come to you complaining that another team member (Fred for the purposes of this example!) is often rude in the way that he speaks to junior members of the team who are threatening to make a formal complaint, or leave, if Fred’s behaviour does not improve. The goal here would be for Fred to gain a better understanding of how his behaviour impacts others, to work with him to change and to avoid a formal complaint or team members leaving. The plan of how to achieve that goal might include some of the following:

  • Planning a good time / place to have a conversation with Fred about his behaviour (which is not in ear shot or sight of his colleagues);
  • Structuring what you are going to say / not say and how you are going to say it including tone of voice and body language;
  • Planning for the unexpected (this could be a complete denial of the behaviour or even a suggestion that the rudeness is from other members of the team and Fred has been considering making a formal complaint himself).

Mental rehearsal

An effective crisis negotiator reviews the skills he or she has been taught and perfected through many hours of training and employs these in a crisis situation. They rehearse the important active listening micro skills as well as reflecting on common demands and statements made by subjects in similar situations which allows a negotiator to remain calm and develop strategies based on the provided information.

They also review “cheat sheets” to help the negotiator easily be reminded of other crisis strategies that can contribute to a peaceful resolution; by mentally rehearsing, a negotiator can plan how to adapt their strategy because rarely, if ever, things go exactly according to plan.

As with Navy SEALs, mental rehearsal and regularly practising your skills, including effective listening are key to the success of the conversation. It can also be helpful to think of similar conversations as, from my experience, these things rarely go to plan in the workplace. There is research to suggest that visualisation techniques can also be very helpful.

Self-talk motivation

Given the highly emotional situations a Navy SEAL will find themselves in self-talk and emotional control are clearly vitally important. Research suggests that certain self-talk is more effective. For example, saying to yourself, “you can do this” instead of, “I can do this”.

In the workplace, having the confidence to manage difficult conversations is a great help. This can come with experience, practice and skills development.

Emotional Control

It would be easy for a hostage negotiator to get caught up in the negative emotions that are being expressed and vital that the negotiator remains calm / uses a neutral tone.

These principles also apply in the context of a difficult conversation with work colleagues; it is important to get yourself in the right frame of mind prior to entering into a difficult conversation. Below are some useful techniques that can help:

  • Use neutral language;
  • Be empathetic rather than sympathetic;
  • Listen to understand before responding and listen with an open mind;
  • Control your breathing e.g. 7/11 breathing. This is where you breathe in for less time than you breathe out;
  • Avoid being drawn in; imagine you are a third party looking in on the conversation.


The consequences of getting a hostage negotiation wrong are clearly far more serious than a difficult conversation in the workplace. However, there will be consequences if it all goes horribly wrong and getting it right is important for all concerned. The principles of being clear of your goal, planning, rehearsal and emotional control will improve your chances of success in achieving your goal without damaging workplace relationships.

For further information on how to develop your skills in managing difficult conversations please contact us at [email protected] or see here.

(This blog is a summary of an article entitled The Effective Crisis Communicator; Prepare Like a Navy Seal by Jeff Thompson)

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The report was very professional, it dealt with all the issues raised and was particularly thorough. It clearly took the time to fully understand all of the issues and background. It was complex but the report really helped to break it down and I’m hoping we can progress in a positive manner following the recommendations.

Group HR Manager, Energy Sector |

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