The ZOUD and Five Steps to Tackling Difficult Conversations With Grace

No one likes to have a difficult conversation. Most people avoid it as long as possible, which tends to exasperate the issue. 

Finally, when it does come to the surface it is often laced with assumptions, innuendoes, and charged energy. Professor Cliff Bowman from Cranfield University in the U.K. developed a term called “ZOUD,” which stands for “Zone of Uncomfortable Debate.”

It consists of three concentric circles: (1) Zone of comfortable debate; (2) Zone of uncomfortable debate; and (3) Heart of the matter: the elephant in the room. You can learn more about the ZOUD in the great book, Challenging Coaching.

The first layer of any conversation usually lingers in the “Zone of comfortable debate.” This is where we discuss nice surface-level issues.

Once we dive a bit deeper, we get into conversations in which parties might disagree or unresolved problems linger. This layer is called the “Zone of uncomfortable debate” (ZOUD), a powerful place to hold difficult conversations. The next layer is the “Heart of the matter” or “Elephant in the room.” We sometimes need to go there to resolve issues, but it isn’t always necessary for a successful outcome.

Think about a time when you were in the “Zone of comfortable debate,” but knew you needed to enter the ZOUD. Did the problem resolve itself? Did you need to revisit the issue? Often, unless we are willing to enter the ZOUD, the issue will just repackage itself, showing up in different forms or with a different bow. Essentially, we are given the same opportunity repeatedly until we learn how to solve it for good.

The Five-Step Process that Takes the Pain Out of Uncomfortable Conversations

In order to enter the ZOUD successfully and have powerful conversations, it’s important to take several steps to ensure maximum success. These five steps will help you tackle difficult conversations with increased confidence and ease.


This is the most important step. No good will come from initiating a difficult conversation without having done some heavy-duty processing and preparing in advance. Start by checking in on:

  • Your perception of the situation: What are the facts as you see them? Take a moment to write down times, dates, incidents, etc. that you consider to be key.
  • Your assumptions: We all make assumptions about situations and others’ interactions with us. What are you assuming that may be accurate or inaccurate?
  • Your “hot buttons” and shadows: How may you be triggered in ways that are not helping you resolve this situation?
  • Your attitude toward the situation/person: When we care about an issue or situation, it’s easy to develop attitudes about what another person is doing correctly or incorrectly. Ask yourself if you are charged (positively/negatively) toward this situation/person and how that may be affecting your ability to stay neutral during a difficult conversation.

Next, consider the purpose for the conversation, and identify what you want it to accomplish. Sometimes spending just 10-15 minutes identifying what we want the outcome to be can help us decide if the conversation actually is needed. Instead, we may opt to move in a completely different direction. Once you know what you want to accomplish, consider the behavioral style, driving motivators, and potential reactions of the person with whom you are interacting.


Once you have prepared adequately, invite the person to a conversation. Sometimes, it’s a required conversation like a performance discussion with a direct report. Other times, it may be an optional chat with a colleague or friend. Either way, inviting the person to the conversation will yield far better results than demanding the conversation take place. For the purposes of this process, let’s assume the conversation is with a colleague or person who doesn’t report directly to you (although the same tips work for required conversations also). Here are a few guidelines to consider when issuing an invitation:

  • Be clear and direct.
  • Be honest.
  • Front-load the request (avoid talking around the issue).
  • Offer enough detail, divulging the reason for the discussion.
  • Respect the other person’s response (they may not be willing to engage).
  • Be willing to forgo the conversation.

These sample invitations will help you get started:

  • “I have something important to discuss in private. When would you have 30 minutes?”
  • “Something has been bothering/irritating/nagging at me, and I’d like to discuss it with you. When would you be available to chat?”
  • “Our last conversation left me confused/upset/angry (insert honest emotion). I’d like to try again. Are you willing to meet this week?”
  • “I truly value our relationship. I would like to revisit an interaction where we may have miscommunicated. Would you be willing to do so this week?”

Once an agreement to meet is set, ensure it is conducted in a neutral location. If you are unable to meet in person, please consider if the timing is right for a deep conversation. There are always two sides to every story. Share your perceptions and ask clarifying open-ended questions to uncover the details. Listen actively, and keep your emotional responses to a minimum. Remember to honor the other person, and conduct the conversation respectfully. Some powerful openings to difficult conversations include:

  • “We seem to have the same conversation repeatedly. Are you open to resolving it once and for all?”
  • “We seem to disagree on X. I’d like to hear your ideas for finding a solution.”
  • “I can’t seem to shake the last conversation we had. Would you be willing to revisit it, so I can put it behind me?”

Your anticipated outcome may not be the ultimate resolution. If you are the person requesting the conversation, make sure you are comfortable with the re-negotiated outcome. If it is a performance-based conversation and there is no room for negotiation, make sure your expectations are clearly agreed upon.


Nothing will change unless you both commit to doing things differently. Be clear about next steps and how you will respond if either of you falls short or forget to make the agreed-upon changes.

While we can’t guarantee a difficult conversation will succeed, we can make sure we approach it prepared, deliberately, intentionally, and respectfully. These tips will help you stay focused on facilitating the most positive outcome possible:

  • Practice the conversation with someone you trust: If a successful outcome is important, practice with a friend who is willing to offer honest feedback. An alternative is to compose an email, and send it to yourself. Wait a few hours, then read the message. By doing so, I often cut out words, making the message more focused.
  • Take personal ownership of your emotions: Acknowledge how you feel by stating, “This is not an easy conversation for me either.” Or “This situation has been percolating for awhile.” Or “It upsets me that we can’t resolve this issue.” When people believe you are sincere, they are less likely to respond defensively.
  • Avoid getting sidetracked or moving into the “Zone Of Comfortable Debate”: It’s important to stay in the ZOUD as long as it takes to resolve the issue or develop next steps, even when it’s tempting to get back to being comfortable. Remember, if you exit too soon, chances are you will have to revisit the conversation. It may be easier to stay with it until it’s resolved.
  • Exit the conversation if it becomes too emotional or heated: Nothing good will come from staying in a conversation that has stopped being productive. Pause and revisit the discussion when you or the other person are able to be more constructive and neutral.

Practicing these five steps, and entering the ZOUD consistently, allow you have difficult conversations – gracefully.