How to Say Difficult Things Without Destroying People

Part of leadership is dealing with difficult situations. Too many people confuse grace with being nice.

If leadership is about relationships, then everything you do either builds people up or tears them down. And it all begins with the words you choose. You can speak life—or defeat—into others.

Everyone has made a poor choice at one point or another. You didn’t get the intended result. Or you missed something you wished you had anticipated. Then it comes: a verbal tornado from your parents, teachers or boss. Those experiences stick with you. Sometimes forever.


Part of leadership is dealing with difficult situations. Too many people confuse grace with being nice. Accountability and ownership are very important characteristics of effective leaders. The choices you make come with consequences—good and bad. And sometimes those choices result in crucial conversations. It’s not so much the conversation you need to have as it is how you will approach it to ensure something profitable comes as a result of it.

I resolved early on in my leadership to be a builder of people not a collector of grievances. And I’ve been lucky to have some grace-filled leaders who modeled this for me by helping me grow through a failure even when I knew I deserved something else.

I don’t want to be a leader who tears people down. That’s not my style. I believe nothing is wasted in life—even bad decisions. I want to help those around me learn from their decisions and circumstances, so they can make a different decision moving forward.


1. It’s a lot easier to extend grace to someone when you can see yourself in their shoes.

2. Don’t rush to judgment before you have all the information. There might be some vital details which will provide insight into the context and circumstances surrounding the situation.

3. This is as true in athletics as it is in the classroom, parenting and the office. You’ll get better results if you mold instead of melt down.

4. Setting expectations will diffuse any lingering awkwardness and shift the focus to what’s ahead rather than what has already happened.

5. Put some distance between the crucial conversation and coaching. Reconnect a few days later. This reinforces your commitment to the other person’s success and affords time for additional personal reflection.

It is possible to say difficult things without destroying people. You’ll win loyalty and favor with those you lead when you do. And, of course, the same grace and respect are much more likely to be extended to you when the roles are reversed.

Helping other people grow is at the heart of what an effective leader does. And the paradox is that as you help others grow through new insights and an expanded perspective, they will help you grow, too.