It is quite likely that you don’t have time to spend on an unexpected difficult conversation, or that you are not in the right frame of mind to have the conversation at that moment.

In this situation, having got over the initial emotional reaction, the best course of action is often to postpone having the conversation. It’s important to acknowledge that you have heard what the other person has said and that the conversation needs to happen. The next step is to arrange a follow-up conversation – and make sure that it is done. Nothing erodes trust more than agreeing to do something and then not doing it.

You might postpone for a short period of time, or longer.

You may find yourself in a situation where you are unable to avoid a conversation. Having one or more pre-planned approaches in your mental tool-kit can relieve the pressure on you. For example, a former NHS nurse shared how, if she found herself in a difficult patient situation, her ‘go to’ approach to postpone a conversation for a short time was to consult the patient’s records. This gave her 5 to 10 minutes to gather herself and prepare for the conversation. An alternative might be to take a break to make a cup of tea or coffee.

If you need to postpone for a longer period of time, make sure that the other person knows what will happen next. This might be to arrange another time for the conversation, or to commit to a time when you will contact the other person to arrange a follow-up conversation. Providing a clear next step helps fulfil our basic human need for certainty. Not meeting this need may cause the other person to perceive the situation as a threat, triggering a further emotional reaction.