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Metaphors and discipline: difficult conversations in the workplace

A great deal of consulting work focuses on improving the formal, by-the-book definitions of roles, structures, processes, or procedures. And yet, how individuals interact, collaborate, and compete, as well as how they interpret and deploy such organisational resources to form relationships and achieve their goals, will ultimately determine business outcomes.[1]

Even putting aside the most extreme examples of stark, dramatic failures to work productively together, resulting in sudden firings, resignations, disciplinary actions, or litigation, [2] the everyday life in the workplace is rife with occasions for misunderstandings, disappointments, slights given or taken. Any number of sudden moves, from cancelling meetings to cancelling whole projects, lower than expected performance assessments, failure to secure a raise, or to get credit for work done, indeed failure to stick to the deadline or deliver can reverberate and create tension if not open conflict.

As the emotional temperature raises, our habitual ability to self-regulate comes under pressure. Our culturally given capacities to represent mentally and “give plausible interpretation of one’s own and other’s behaviour in terms of underlying mental states”[3] may no longer work effectively, and confusion, if not careless, impulsive behaviour, may take over and do more harm than good.

Fortunately, going back to the drawing board, revisiting our old ways of making sense of social situations to construct better understanding, better self-care and better self-regulation does not have to be a lonely effort. Increasingly these concerns are no longer seen as a sign of weakness or failure; they are no longer enveloped in shame or relegated to the private realm or the hidden recesses of organisational life. For a decade or more, specialist publications, including the Harvard Business Review, have been developing analysis and language that does great service by making these difficult, sometimes overwhelming topics intelligible and manageable.[4]    

How and when we turn to such resources can make all the difference. Reading this literature over the years, what has worked especially well for me has been the encounter with the right, resonant metaphor. Here are a couple of metaphors with proven staying power that I came across in the work of Amy Gallo, one of the most prolific and incisive writers in this area.

  • A well-managed, difficult conversation does not generate any shrapnel.[5] In other words, all that was raw and hurtful to begin with has been successfully contained. You have identified the concrete issue that is significant for the organisation and for your own long-term self-interest. With this clarity, you have been able not only to find the right moment to surface an issue but also to use language that is appropriately sensitive to how your colleagues will hear and what they need to move forward constructively. It may have taken a great deal of thinking and strategising, there might have been some tension in the air, but ultimately the issue is resolved with no harm done.
  • To open up a space for resolving disagreements constructively, you have to sweep up your side of the street first.[6] Clearly, difficult situations force us to consider how exactly we come to construct a certain view of others, their motivations, what has occurred. Our own biases or weaknesses may have played a part. What are they? Before an issue becomes an issue, is there any chance that more, better information could help us find a different way of framing what we think we know? Could small experiments and/or adjustments of our own actions clear away some of the underlying tensions?

Metaphors, evocative language, and detailed examples, all help make this literature accessible and engaging. For balance, a disciplined, analytical approach is also on offer as these writings on conflict and difficult conversations spell out a logical sequence of actions and provide effective language that is neutral, curious, and able to elicit useful information.

Alongside this, in her latest book, ‘Getting along’, Gallo offers a typology of scenarios for how difficult people might present, including those like the insecure boss, the pessimist, the victim, the passive-aggressive peer, the know-it-all, the tormentor, the biased co-worker and the political operator. In each case, slightly different considerations will be the focus for your analysis and response.

Clearly, whatever your cognitive or emotional style, whether you have a strong preference for metaphor or for the disciplined approach, or for a combination of the two, there is never a bad time to dip into this literature. If you are happily sailing in calm waters, take a moment to build up reserves of understanding, and ultimately savvy, ready for when the going gets tough. And if somewhere in your working world the temperature is already uncomfortably high, remember that this is also an opportunity to revisit and re-examine some of your emotional patterns and ways of doing things, and figure out new ones.   

Consultants, who often serve as role models for handling sensitive situations smoothly and effectively, can benefit from this literature and indeed become trusted guides, enabling clients to engage with, assimilate and apply such insights.


Dr Liliana Pop is an independent consultant based in London, focusing on training and development.

You can connect with her on LinkedIn or visit the website



[1] As the popular saying has it, culture eats strategy for breakfast every day.

[2] See for instance the case of the former C.I.A employee Joshua Schulte, who is currently counter suing his former employer over assigning responsibility for leaking and making public their digital espionage toolkit, in Patrick Radden Keefe. 2022. “The surreal case of a C.I.A. hacker’s revenge” in The New Yorker, 13 June issue.

[3] Fonogy, Peter, Gyögy Gergely, Elliot L. Jurist and Mary Target. 2002.  Affect regulation, mentalization, and the development of the self. London: Karnac, p. 26.

[4] There are several hundred articles in the HBR archive now that present thoughtful approaches to difficult conversations, in a variety of contexts.

[5] Amy Gallo. 2017. HBR Guide to Dealing with Conflict. Boston: Harvard Business Review Press.

[6] Amy Gallo. 2022. Getting along. How to work with anyone (even difficult people). Boston: Harvard Business Review Press.

Tuesday 10th January 2023
Conversation at work