Structure tough conversations for better problem solving

11. October 2021 - By Morten Flørnæss Kerrn, Client Director, Mannaz Share

No good leader avoids difficult conversations, but it is easier to structure the dialogue around six stages and some simple ground rules. This method ensures that the conversation doesn’t become circular and that new perspectives on the problem emerge, bringing you closer to a solution. Read on for inspiration.

Workload too great, high levels of sickness absence, or lack of cooperation in the workplace; it can be challenging to discuss workplace problems to make everyone feel heard while contributing to constructive change. Therefore, conversations about problems should be managed to create new opportunities and gain an understanding of each other’s perspectives, so that the difficult conversations don’t drift off in unhelpful directions. As a manager, using a tested conversation structure will give you more room in the dialogue to talk about difficulties in a constructive way, to benefit all parties.

The so-called dialogue model is well suited for discussing any problems in your team or department. The model ensures that the dialogue is guided so that employees don’t go off-topic. Instead, you work together through a set of perspectives on the challenge or issue you want to tackle.

The six conversation phases

The dialogue is structured around six set phases and is supported by six simple rules for the conversation. The phases should be discussed together, with about 15 minutes allocated to each phase.

Phase 1: Establish the topic

Phase 2: What’s going well relevant to this topic?

Phase 3: What challenges need to be addressed with regards to the topic?

Phase 4: What opportunities are there with respect to the topic?

Phase 5: What agreements can we reach?

Phase 6: What went well in terms of this dialogue?

The model requires that you, as the meeting leader, manage expectations. You need to tell participants that they’re invited to a joint session where you will discuss a specific and set topic. The session will be similar to a brainstorming session, with all participants contributing while following a clear dialogue structure and providing several views on a topic.

Following these six phases, you will know how to progress the conversation, and have the confidence to deal with discussions and any disagreements that may emerge.


Rules of play for difficult conversations

In addition to the six dialogue stages, it’s important to establish ground rules before the conversation starts. All participants should know the ground rules before the session begins:

  • All participants should have the opportunity to contribute
  • All input is welcome
  • Write down all the contributions to the conversation
  • Only address the phase you are in
  • Never go back to previous phases once you have moved on to a new phase
  • Only use the time allocated. So, when the time is up, move on to the next phase

When you know the six phases and the rules of the game, difficult conversations are a little easier for you and the other participants in the dialogue.


*Grønbæk and Pors, 2017, Dafolo Forlag

An alternative version of the article was previously published on


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Morten Flørnæss Kerrn

Morten educates leaders, consultants, and specialists in the management of both people, processes, and projects. Additionally, he specializes in distance management and virtual facilitation. Throughout the years, Morten has been focusing on leaders in the public sector and the development of public organisations. He has a background of emplyment in government agencies and has through the last 8 years worked as an external consultant for municipalities, regions, and government. Morten is also an expert in coaching and process facilitation.

Contact Morten at or 5139 6052.