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Lessons Learned from Having a Difficult Conversation

Let us carry these lessons as beacons, lighting the way to more respectful, transparent, and harmonious collaborations that contribute to both personal and professional growth.


I recently experienced a difficult conversation that made me highly uncomfortable and agitated.


Just to offer some context, I was exploring a possible collaboration with a potential partner based outside of Malaysia to rollout their products and services in Malaysia. As a follow-up to the initial meeting, I shared feedback from my market research including discussions I had with some friendly and influential stakeholders to offer the potential partner a better understanding of our Malaysian market. As I genuinely wanted the collaboration to succeed, I was honest in offering as much insights as I could including the competitive landscape and potential challenges in rolling out the products and services in Malaysia (on hindsight, perhaps that wasn’t a good thing). They refused to accept my insights and they got defensive (I’ve no doubt they firmly believe in the USPs of their products and services). They even had the audacity to give me a talking to, which was really a shocker for me! Their condescending tone made me feel attacked and disrespected. So I pushed back and stood my position.


Reflecting after the conversation, it became clear to me that they are not a partner I’m comfortable collaborating with. In a collaboration, the effort should be equitable and there must be mutual respect. I feel they are leveraging me to access the Malaysian market and the scale seemed to tip in their favour. Their motherhood ideas were generic and when enquired further, the response was vague at best. Feeling uncomfortable is a sign of personal growth and I’m grateful for that. However, when it comes to business and money matters, feeling uncomfortable is a clear red flag. Why should I stick my neck out and put in significant resources when the risk-reward profile isn’t clear or is detrimental to me? In the end, I respectfully called off the discussion.

Lessons learned

Lesson #1 - Communication is key

Effective communication involves not just conveying information but ensuring that it is understood in the intended way. It's about actively listening, asking clarifying questions, and being receptive to feedback. Miscommunications can lead to misunderstandings and undermine the foundation of any collaboration.

Lesson #2 - Respectful dialogue

Maintaining a respectful dialogue requires conscious effort. Even when faced with differing opinions, fostering an environment where ideas can be shared without fear of judgment is essential. Condescending tones and defensive reactions hinder productive conversations and can damage relationships irreparably.

Lesson #3 - Cultural sensitivity

Cultural sensitivity involves understanding and appreciating diverse communication styles. In a globalized world, acknowledging and adapting to cultural nuances can prevent unintended conflicts. Building cultural intelligence enables smoother interactions and fosters a more inclusive atmosphere.

Lesson #4 - Balanced collaboration

Collaboration should be a partnership, not an exploitation. A balanced collaboration involves a fair distribution of responsibilities, resources, and benefits. Recognising when the scale is tipping unfavourably allows for early intervention and negotiation to restore equilibrium.

Lesson #5 - Trust your instincts

Trusting your instincts is about recognising when something doesn't align with your values or when red flags emerge. It's a reminder to prioritise your well-being and the integrity of your endeavours. Trusting your instincts doesn't mean dismissing differing opinions but being discerning about what feels right for you.

Lesson #6 - Transparent expectations

Clearly defining expectations sets the foundation for a successful collaboration. It involves discussing goals, timelines, and potential challenges upfront. Transparency promotes trust and minimises the likelihood of misunderstandings, ensuring that both parties are on the same page from the beginning.

Lesson #7 - Open-mindedness

Balancing assertiveness with open-mindedness involves being confident in your insights while remaining receptive to alternative perspectives. It's a skill that encourages creative problem-solving and prevents the pitfalls of rigidity. Open-mindedness is a catalyst for innovation within collaborations.

Lesson #8 - Risk assessment

Thoroughly assessing the risk-reward profile entails evaluating the potential challenges, uncertainties, and benefits of a collaboration. It's about making informed decisions based on a realistic understanding of what the venture entails. Rigorous risk assessment provides a foundation for effective risk management.

Lesson #9 - Professional boundaries

Establishing professional boundaries involves setting clear expectations for behaviour and communication. It's about recognising and addressing any attempts to overstep these boundaries promptly. Maintaining professionalism ensures a healthy working environment and prevents undue influence.

Lesson #10 - Self-advocacy

Self-advocacy is the art of expressing your needs, concerns, and viewpoints assertively. It's about standing firm in your convictions while remaining open to constructive dialogue. In professional settings, effective self-advocacy ensures that your contributions are valued and respected.

Lesson #11 - Exit strategies

Having exit strategies in place is about being prepared for the possibility that a collaboration may not proceed as planned. It involves developing clear, respectful ways to disengage from discussions if it becomes evident that the partnership is not aligned with your goals or values.

Lesson #12 - Continuous learning

Viewing every experience as a learning opportunity cultivates a growth mindset. Reflecting on both successes and challenges allows for ongoing personal and professional development. Continuous learning builds resilience, adaptability, and a deeper understanding of oneself and others.


The lessons drawn from my recent difficult conversation serve as a compass guiding my future endeavours. Effective communication stands out as a pivotal factor, emphasising clarity, receptivity, and an ability to navigate diverse perspectives. The importance of respectful dialogue, cultural sensitivity, and the pursuit of balanced collaborations underscore the necessity of fostering equitable relationships built on mutual respect. Trusting one's instincts, maintaining transparent expectations, and embracing a mindset of continuous learning contribute to a more resilient and adaptable approach in professional collaborations. Careful risk assessment and the establishment of professional boundaries, coupled with self-advocacy, create a foundation for productive partnerships. Exit strategies, often overlooked, emerge as crucial tools, providing a dignified means to disengage from unproductive collaborations.

In essence, the journey of collaboration demands a delicate balance between assertiveness and receptivity, self-assuredness, and humility. Let us carry these lessons as beacons, lighting the way to more respectful, transparent, and harmonious collaborations that contribute to both personal and professional growth.


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