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Tough topics, Hewlett: Difficult conversations may begin with assuming a neutral position

by Wyoming Livestock Roundup

Torrington – At some point on most ranch operations, there is a difficult conversation that needs to take place. 

“There are always challenges involving human emotions and relationships over past conflicts that make these conversations difficult,” pointed out John Hewlett, a farm and ranch specialist with the University of Wyoming. 

In fact, one third of the people at the Southeast Wyoming Beef Production Convention in Torrington, said management transition is the biggest challenge they face right now. 

“The most difficult part in beginning these conversations is how to start,” Hewlett told ranchers. 

If they aren’t addressed, some of these challenges can become an integral part of the functioning of the family and ranching operation, he explained. 

“Difficult conversations are any conversations we find challenging to get involved in. They stir up emotions and past conflicts over a topic,” he said. “It can also be a conversation we or the people we care about are all passionate about.”

Pieces of the conversation

No matter what the difficulty might be, there are some main conversations to have that could help underline the main topic. 

The first is the “what happened” conversation. Both parties may wrestle with what happened, when the event took place and what was said. 

Another is the “feelings” conversation, which is how the feelings we have influence how we interpret what’s being said and an assessment of what’s going on. It also influences how we reacted to what was said. 

“The question becomes, whether I should express my feelings to someone and hope for a better outcome,” Hewlett said.

Next is identifying the conversation, which calls into question our competency, Hewlett explained. 

“We question things like whether or not we are worthy of love. Am I a good or bad person? Do we look inward and wonder whether things will work out okay? It calls into question our self-worth,” he admitted.

Don’t make assumptions

Hewlett cautioned producers to avoid mistakes that can hinder progress in having difficult conversations. 

Intentions versus impact happens when making assumptions about the other person’s intentions based on the impact it has had on us. 

“We start making assumptions of what the other person means, how that impacts us and how it will affect us,” he said. “We assume the worst, giving us license to make assumptions.”

Hewlett continued, “We treat ourselves charitably by trying to explain our own behavior in a defensive mode. For example, my boss told me I did a bad job, but I did a bad job because my wife is sick. Bad intentions may become self-fulfilling because we start behaving in a way that goes a long with the that.”

Starting point

Starting a difficult conversation can be a challenge. 

“We should try holding in our view or hypothesis until we work through what’s going on and until it’s proven where the other person is coming from,” Hewlett said. “Identify what their intentions may be.”

He also recommended sharing the impact of what someone said and asking what their intentions are. 

Hewlett explained, “They may not understand what impact their words have on us.”

Even if a person’s intentions are good, their intentions may not have a good impact on the other person. 

“Sometimes, we have no idea that is the case,” Hewlett said. “Don’t ignore the complexity of their intentions. We may aggravate hostility by expressing or forcing our intentions on them. It’s important to listen to other’s words and feelings.”

 “The hurt our words cause may be evident in their reaction,” he said. 


Blaming others rarely gets a positive response. 

“Maybe it comes from early responses to bullying on the playground, but blaming others makes it difficult to understand the contribution each side has made to the difficult conversation,” Hewlett said. “When we blame someone else, it is all about blaming the other person and building evidence against them.”

“If we can change that and start thinking about each person’s contribution or input, we can start looking at a better level of understanding and go forward to resolve the problem or situation,” he continued. “Engage instead of pointing fingers.”

Proactive approach

UW Extension Educator Caleb Carter encourages producers to take a proactive approach to resolution. 

“We should ask ourselves whether we should raise the topic or if there is another way to approach it. Then, consider if there is a different way we could react to change our part in it. Maybe the conflict is inside of us,” he said.

Carter sees value in creating a learning conversation, because once all parties get past the mistakes and down to the problem, they will have a better chance solving it. 

“We always want to approach stories from our side, but have we ever considered approaching them from a third party’s perspective – like as a mediator or non-objective third party? We should try taking ourselves out of the picture and understand where both sides are coming from,” Carter said.


Don’t use words like “You always” or “You never.” 

“We are not being non-objective when we use words like that,” Carter explained. “Instead, extend the invitation for the conversation and set the mood.” 

“Describe the purpose from a non-objective point of view,” he said. “What that does is raise the issue and our concern about it without any type of finger-pointing.”

Problem-solving is about understanding where the other person is coming from, Carter explained. 

“The idea is to rephrase what they say to show we understand the situation from their point of view. If the other person thinks we are genuinely listening, they may be more willing to share and listen to our point of view,” he commented. “It takes two to agree. Identify the issue or concern, and work together to resolve it.”

Gayle Smith is a correspondent for the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments on this article to

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