featured image

Unleashed E69: Scott Tillema - Navigating Difficult Conversations

  • Home
  • Blog
  • Unleashed E69: Scott Tillema - Navigating Difficult Conversations

Table of Contents

Navigating difficult conversations is a universal challenge. Whether in personal relationships or professional settings, these discussions often induce stress and carry significant consequences. In business, effective negotiation can determine the success of crucial initiatives, such as product launches or workforce decisions.


While these situations may not always be life-or-death, they demand expertise and finesse. Who better to offer guidance than someone with firsthand experience? In this episode, we're joined by Scott Tillema, a former SWAT hostage negotiator trained by the FBI. Scott shares invaluable insights on how to approach and manage these high-pressure conversations, shedding light on strategies to ease tensions and achieve positive outcomes. Delve into the art of navigating difficult conversations with confidence and skill.

Actions You Can Take Right Now

  1. Stop treating negotiations like war. The person you’re talking to isn’t your enemy, and you’re not trying to make them lose. Reframe the conversation as two sides trying to work together.
  2. Identify your triggers. Start thinking about when you have a negative reaction. Are you placing blame? Getting defensive? Losing control of yourself and the situation? By identifying these triggers, you can prepare for them. 

  3. Ask yourself, “What if I’m wrong?” Too often, we equate asking for input or help with weakness. Approach a difficult conversation by trying to see the other side first. 
Video Player

View or listen to this and other past episodes on the Unleashed Podcast Library

Episode Highlights and Excerpts

  • Many organizations have an absence of trust or one of truth-telling. There are no difficult conversations because we (including leadership) would rather avoid them. 

  • Taking a course or seminar isn’t always enough. Without practice, it doesn’t translate into effective outcomes. “This type of work you can’t learn by watching the PowerPoint. A lot of it is doing.

  • There’s no magic phrase to get someone to do what you want. In fact, listening is often a more effective way of finding some common ground. 

  • “When you hear something you don’t like, your goal is to get more information.” Ask questions about what the person wants out of the discussion or where they’re coming from when they say something that feels uncomfortable.

  • Rule No. 1 of any negotiation is “Manage yourself first.” How can you lead if you aren’t in control of yourself? The less surprise we have, the stronger we are.

  • Limit that surprise by defining and exploring your triggers. The last time you had a negative reaction, was it:
    • Blame
    • Defensiveness
    • Loss of self-control

  • Start managing the space between the stimulus (what triggers you) and the response. “That space is ours.”

  • When we try to think of questions we can ask people, most of us start with a “Why?” I want to know why, tell me why. 
    • Eliminate why from your vocabulary when asking questions. 
    • It often triggers defensiveness, because it implies there was a fault and feels like an attack. Why didn’t you do that? Why did you? 
    • Next time you go into your boss’s office, be prepared for a “why” question, so you can step back and observe the reaction. 

  • If you are triggered, meet them with a pause. Take a moment, reflect internally on what is happening, and you will form a better response. It’s okay to be silent for a moment in a conversation. 

  • Start separating positions and interests
    • Positions where we pretend to be.
    • Interest is what we want. 
    • When you’re asking questions, try to get to the interest, instead of assuming that you know what it is. 

  • Most importantly, be willing to ask yourself, “What if I’m wrong? Most of us have trouble even approaching this idea. 
    • We often equate this with weakness. But it’s often just a lack of information. 
    • Negotiate for we, not me. We’re trying to get to the best outcome, not my outcome. 

  • It all comes down to preparation, but not necessarily planning. Don’t rehearse conversations with “I’m going to say this, then they’re going to say this.” The hardest conversations are usually unexpected and reactive. Be comfortable instead of having a plan of attack. 

  • How you say something can be just as important as what you say. Delivery is impacts how the other person feels. Practice your delivery:
    • Rate: Fast speech can convey excitement or urgency but also cause confusion or overwhelm the listener. Too slow, on the other hand, can add gravity but also give the impression of condescension or uncertainty. 
    • Rhythm: The pattern or intonation of your sentences can give a conversation flow or even musicality. A static rhythm can seem disinterested or disengaged. 
    • Pressure: The force you use behind certain words can make them more powerful, but can also show frustration or anger. 
    • Volume: How loud or soft you speak can convey a number of feelings, like authority, passion, seriousness, or intimacy. 
    • Tone: A friendly, warm tone will immediately ease the tension of a conversation. Even if what you’re saying is hard to hear, you can soften the blow and avoid creating a wall between you. 

  • But this isn’t just taping yourself and trying to perfect a certain voice. Ask for feedback from the people you trust. “When I’m under pressure, how do I communicate with others? What do you hear from me?” There will be people that have been waiting years to give you that feedback. 

  • Don’t shrug off the stakes. Each conversation is important, even if it’s not a hostage situation. Show up with everything you have, and be present throughout. 

  • Practice active listening with MOREPIES:
    • Minimal encouragers: These are brief statements or non-verbal cues like nodding, saying "I see," or "go on" to encourage the speaker to continue.
    • Open-ended questions: Ask questions that need more than just a yes/no answer.
    • Reflecting: Repeat back what the other person is saying or mirror the gestures they make.
    • Effective pauses: Use silence to demonstrate importance, allow someone to vent frustration, or encourage them to step in. 
    • Paraphrasing: Summarize what they’re said in your own words to make sure you’re both on the same page.
    • ‘I’ messages: Sentences like “I feel _____ when you _____” can de-escalate or show people where you are in the conversation. 
    • Emotional labeling: Show people that you understand how the conversation is affecting them. “I can see that what I said upset you.”
    • Summary: Before moving on, make sure your conclusion is the one they intended. 

Take Your Business to the Next Level

At Results we care about your success, we understand how overwhelming it can feel to run a business, and we’re here to help. Reach out to Nicole through our contact form for ways to unleash the potential of your business. 

Visit the Unleashed Podcast Library where you’ll find exclusive conversations with world-class thought leaders, authors, and leadership experts. 

Each episode of Unleashed is hosted by Results’ CEO Jeff Tetz who spends most of his day exploring what makes high performers tick and helping build a community of leaders who want to learn and grow together. Follow Jeff (Twitter; LinkedIn; Instagram) for more great leadership insights.

Access the Full Episode Your Way

Click the logo below to subscribe to your favorite platform and never miss another episode recording. Remember to subscribe to your favorite channel and be the first to know when new conversations are available.

Results YouTubeResults SpotifyResults Apple Podcastspodbean

Scott Tillema

Scott T - ep 69

Scott Tillema is a retired SWAT hostage negotiator, trained by the FBI and at Harvard University. He has over twenty years of law enforcement experience.

As a founding partner of The Negotiations Collective, Scott now speaks on how to use the power of life saving negotiation principles to create business success.