Navigating Difficult Conversations with Marcia Reynolds

Reading Time: 13 Minutes

How do you control your presence? How do you use the right words? How do you know what someone means? How do you reset a conversation that isn’t going well?

In this second interview, Marcia Reynolds answers these questions and more.

About Marcia Reynolds

Marcia is the president of Covisioning, LLC, where she coaches leaders to be more engaging and effective in their conversations. Her newest book is Coach the Person, Not the Problem. She’s also the author of The Discomfort Zone: How Leaders Turn Difficult Conversations Into Breakthroughs and Wander Woman: How High-Achieving Women Find Contentment and Direction. Her work has been featured in Harvard Business Review, Forbes, CNN, ABC, the Los Angeles Times and more.

Read the Transcript

Who Is Marcia Reynolds?

Allison Dunn: Hey, Deliberate Leaders. I am your host, Allison Dunn, executive coach and founder of the Deliberate Leaders podcast where we are dedicated to helping leaders build strong, thriving businesses.

Each episode we feature inspiring interviews to help you on your leadership journey. I’m just so excited to have Marcia Reynolds back with us.

She’s coming back for the second time. She is our number one most watched YouTube interview that we’ve done here on Deliberate Leaders and just an incredibly lovely person.

Marcia Reynolds is the president of Covisioning LLC where she coaches leaders to be more engaging and effective in their conversations.

She has a number of books but her the one that she launched last year, I feel like it’s about this time or so is, Coach the Person, Not the Problem: A Guide to Using Reflective Inquiry.

She’s also authored, “The Discomfort Zone: How Leaders Turn Difficult Conversations Into Breakthroughs,” as well as “Wonder Woman: How High-Achieving Women Find Contentment and Direction.”

Her work is featured in the Harvard Business Review, Forbes, CNN, Los Angeles Times, and more.

Marcia, thank you so much for joining us back here.

Marcia Reynolds: Oh, thank you. Thanks for the ask because I so enjoyed our last conversation.

Be Fully Present

Allison: Absolutely. I always wonder if you get to do a second interview, does someone have a different tip?

I like to kick these off with a deliberate conversation asking you what is your #1 leadership tip for our leaders today?

Marcia: Even more so because so many of our conversations are remote, not just live, that being fully present so people feel that you are there with them.

Even through the internet, they have to feel seen, heard, and valued. It’s even more critical these days.

Allison: I absolutely agree that because we’ve been forced to move to the online like how you show up and how you have presence in this setting and make that connection is.

I think it makes or breaks whether people want to come back and do it again. It’s hard thing. I’m hoping we can actually dive into that a little bit today.

How to Create a Powerful Presence

One of the topics that we’re going to talk about is, “How to create a powerful presence?”

Marcia, we are open to all the tips that you have to help us focus around that specifically.

You’d asked a great question before we get started, it was, “Well, what is actually the meaning of powerful?” Right?

Before you can get to the idea of what presence is. Let’s dive into that.

Marcia: OK, there’s actually two things that I look at in the word powerful but to start when we talk about powerful presence is, it’s the impact that you have.

I always ask my leaders, “Do you know what happens when you just walk into a room?”

Because so many times we practice what we’re going to say and how we’re going to be once we engage but you are affecting people with your energy the moment you walk in.

The even more powerful question is, “What happens when you leave?” Are they like, “Oh, I can breathe now.”

But the leader, the way the brain works, the leader sets the emotional tone and that occurs from the moment of impact of energetic impact and we’re always– As a leader, we’re always powerful but in what way?

What is the impact that you’re having? Are when people see you do they feel hope? Do they feel inspired? Or do they feel afraid? Or cautious? And that’s just going to come from your intentions and your emotions that you bring into the room with you.

Much more powerful in all those words you practice.

Allison: Right.

I would consider myself to be definitely an empath. Someone who picks up on energy immediately based on his in my presence and I actually give a lot of energy based on that too.

Even if people don’t want it, I am giving them energy, regardless, without permission sometimes.

How to Be Self-Aware

Allison: How do I recognize maybe what I bring or don’t bring at times and how can someone be self-aware as to whether their impact is in a positive way or if it’s in a draining way?

Marcia: That’s an interesting thing.

First, I want to say that being able to pick up on other people’s energy as you do is an amazing gift and it’s also a shadow and dark side because if you pick up on their energy and you hold it, you’re in trouble.

Being able to receive what’s going on with people at an energetic level and then breathe and let it go.

I always talk about having non-reactive empathy. We don’t have reactive empathy to where we react to what they’re feeling, we have to just understand it and release it.

We can be fully present and still help them to rise above to where they are right now. That’s an important piece.

One of the things we talked about before we started this is, in particularly our culture, we’re very focused on the analytical mind and the logic of the analytical mind is extremely limited.

That the wisdom in our body of what you were even just talking about is far more expansive than what the analytical mind can create.

Again, we often practice what we’re going to say. We think about things. We watch people’s facial expressions which can be easily misinterpreted.

Allison: Very.

Marcia: Yes. To be able to tune in, really, it’s into your body.

That’s the practice and for people who have never done this, there are so many things that can help them to just start being aware.

A lot of our practices like yoga and martial arts.

I wouldn’t even say meditation because meditation is a very personal thing but to be able to be aware of what’s going on while we are moving is really the critical piece.

It just starts with what’s going on with me. Where– Right now, where are your hands placed? Do you know where are your arms in relation to legs?

Just starting to be conscious that I have this thing. That’s a part of me called my body.

When I teach coaching, I was talking about receive. Receive what they’re giving you. Not just the words they say but everything they’re giving you.

When we start being able to sense their emotions in a way that they can’t even because they don’t know how to articulate it, then we can offer back what we’re sensing and be wrong. It doesn’t matter, just to say, I’m sensing this is what’s going on with you that you’re really.

I told this leader, I said, “It sounds like you’re sad.”

He goes, “Not sad, I’m embarrassed.”

Even when I’m wrong, I allow them to go deeper into what’s really going on with them.

We start with our self-awareness and I hesitate on the word self but then there’s that I but that full body awareness and then we can start learning how to take in the energy of other people.

Allison: Self awareness is definitely a skill that can be practiced and mastered for sure.

On a perspective, from like, what does a leader have to be self always– Is it a critical– Do you think it’s mandatory to be self-aware as a leader?

Marcia: Yes.

Allison: OK. I just want to make that as a base thing.

Marcia: That was a leading question.

Allison: I was like, how do I ask that doesn’t say that’s what I think too.

People Need Connection More Than Answers

Marcia:  Well, that’s been the problem for years that leaders live in their bubble.

Allison: Yes.

Marcia:  They think they’re supposed to be the expert that knows all the answers.

Allison: Right.


Now these days people aren’t looking for answers. They’re looking for you to be present. They’re looking for connection more so than answers. They don’t expect you to have all the answers.

In fact, it was the woman who’s the CEO of Microsoft said, “Don’t be a know it all. Be a learn it all.”

Allison:  Yes, I love that statement.

We just talked about like powerful and the impact but let’s talk about how– What does powerful presence actually– How many ways can that show up?

Let’s talk through some ways that that actually exudes in today’s?

Marcia: Well, one of the main things that in terms of before you– Any leader goes into a conversation is to even be aware of what’s my intention and oftentimes, leaders like, “Well, I want to change them and that’s what I want to do.”

This is again, that word when I hesitated with self.

I always say, “We have to unself.”

Remove that word I.

It’s like: What is it that’s important to them at this moment? What is it that I can help them to work through so we can move forward together? The intention has to shift off of what I want.

Shift “I want people to change”, “I want them to do this” into: “What is it that’s most important to them at this moment?” or, “What are the challenges they’re facing or the fears that they have that are keeping them from moving forward?”

But what is the goal that’s meaningful for them that I can help them achieve? I need to be there for them.

The moment you walk in the room, people know if you’re there for them or only for yourself?

Allison: Yes.

Ask Yourself What Your Intention Is

Marcia: Asking yourself, what is my intention for having this meeting for having this conversation?

And it can be for both, maybe you want them to change but it’s got to be a change that will help them achieve a goal they want as well. Yes.

I always start with intention.

Allison: I love that. I think that people can have good intentions but use the wrong words when they’re communicating.

How do you– Let’s just say, I’ve used a word as a leader to suggest that something I don’t control.

For example, I’m leading a team and I say, “That will never happen again. That project fell apart, that will never happen again.”

How would you coach me as to why that might not be the correct thing to say in front of everyone?

Marcia: Oh, in front of everyone. Well, first of all, I would just ask you the meaning. What do you mean by that?

Allison: OK.

Marcia: Are you–? Yes. Are you saying you better not ever do that again?

Allison: That’s the way it sounds.

Marcia: That’s the way it sounds.

Allison: Yes.

Marcia: Yes. I always in my coaching say:

What is it that you mean by that? Can we go into your intention, the meaning you have behind that statement?

Allison:  Yes. Because I think the intention was, “Well, we’re going to work to solve that and we hope that that will never happen again and that we’re going to learn from this.”

But I don’t think that’s what was actually communicated in the setting.

Marcia: Well, and that’s why I would ask you, “What exactly do you mean by that statement?”

It allows you to articulate it in the way you just did.

People go, “Oh, I see. You really are here for me, not to beat me up.”

Never Assume You Understand What Someone Means

Allison: Do you think that you would encourage anyone who is confused by the strength or maybe minimization of certain words that they ask for clarification?

Because only through that can we really get to the deeper understanding of, “Nope, that’s exactly what I meant. You won’t ever do that again.” Or they give you an ear like a new way to understand it– Clear– The opportunity for clarifications key?

Marcia: Oh, totally.

When I teach coaches always say, “Never assume that you understand what they meant.”

Allison: Yes.

Marcia:  Never assume that. The key words that they use, always ask, “Could you tell me what you mean by that?”

“Or what does that word mean to you?”

Even the word like, I’m “passionate” about this.

What does “passionate” mean to you? Does that mean because it’s a value of yours? Or is it that you know this is going to make a big difference for everyone?

What is the driver of passion for you in this moment?

We truly help each other understand because we just speak fast, we talk fast.

Allison: We do.

Marcia:  We don’t really think through what– Why is it I chose that word? And what is it that I mean by that word? Which in the explanation of your meaning is where we create the connection with others.

Turn Difficult Conversations Into Good Results

Allison: One of the topics that I know that you can shed some light on is how we can turn difficult conversations into good results?

Can you share some tips on that?

Marcia: Yes.

Well, you know, we talked about going into any conversation knowing what your intention is.

Of course, in a difficult conversation, you know what is your intention? Are you again there just to punish them or change them or are you there to help discover ways to meet goals you mutually want?

But the second thing is, when we talk about self-awareness…

We have to know what is it I’m feeling at this moment. Ask yourself: “Am I disappointed? Am I angry?” Because if you carry that in with you, they’re totally going to shut down. They’re not going to talk to you.

To understand what is the emotion that I that I’m carrying and can I shift?

The opposite of pessimism and cynicism isn’t optimism. It’s hope. Can I go into this conversation with hope that things will change?

If you’re stuck, if you really are disappointed because the person made promises that they keep breaking, then be clear right up front.

“I just want to share that I am disappointed. I know you can accomplish so much more. And you keep promising me you’ll do this and you’re not. So it’s really difficult for me not to be disappointed at this moment.”

Just share where you’re stuck.

There is an understanding and it doesn’t just cause fear.

Before you even go into the conversation: “What is the emotion I’m carrying in with me?”

If you don’t know how to do this, then you know there’s so much out there on emotional intelligence and being able to identify what it is that I’m feeling right now. … Lots of resources out there.

How to Reset a Conversation

Allison: I think that, obviously, communication like we can go in with the intention of having a great conversation but the energy that the other person brings also could impact whether it’s a good result or a bad result.

Any guidance on a reset if it’s heading in the wrong direction and your intention is actually maybe being misunderstood still?

Marcia: Well, I often use this in coaching: Stop and talk about the process.

Allison: OK.

Marcia: So… “We started this conversation. We seem to go fairly well into what’s possible and then I sensed your resistance and your hesitation. You just seem to back off.

It was almost like a roller coaster. We were up here and now you’re down here. So tell me what’s going on with you?”

Again, just being curious, what is it about– What is it? Yes, and oftentimes, when people start to commit to an action, they do pull back because then they start to think yes but if I do this, the horrible things will happen.

Their fears, their beliefs come into play without thinking about.

If you sense hesitation resistance, just say so.

I was coaching at this conference, I got to travel to Estonia. I was coaching a man who is about to be a new CEO of his own business.

He had been an executive in other companies for years and he wanted to be coached on a couple of things that he needed to do first but every time he made an agreement of, “Yes, I need to do this and I need to talk to this and I need to this…” The word “but” came up.

Allison: But.

Marcia: Then he backtracked and I would say, “OK, I hear you committed and now you’re looking at some possibilities that could get in the way some challenges. “Let’s look at the challenges.”

But this happened like three times. I finally said, “OK, I need just to share with you.”

So that roller coaster… I said, “It feels like this. It’s like you get up to this point where you’re ready to commit and then you back off and then you back off. I recognize that this is a huge transition for you to start your own business and you said you have great partners and it’s a wonderful service that you’re going to provide and you’re very excited about it but you keep pulling back. Tell me, what’s going on with you that you keep pulling back?”

It was so interesting because he said, “I do. I am doing that, aren’t I? I don’t want to do that. I am ready to commit.”

Just the recognition of the hesitation, to put it on the table to look at it made the entire difference in the conversation and he was really ready to move forward.

Just step back and talk process.

We learn this in working with teams, to talk about the process. “How did that go? How are we getting along with each other and all that?”

We don’t think about it in our one on one conversations but we need to talk process and those conversations as well.

Allison: Yes, that’s an excellent tip. Thank you.

How to Live With Uncertainty

Allison: I hate to date the episode but we’re in June of 2021 and we’ve really come through just quite a time worldwide, right? Things are starting to I guess maybe– I don’t want to say return. There’s no returning to anything. But things are starting to feel more comfortable, people are starting to feel safe.

Can we talk about how we can become comfortable living with uncertainty, because it’s not gone away?

Marcia: Yes. Well, as we were saying before. The word uncertainty is such a funny word.

It’s in people are using it as if this is brand new that 18 months ago, the world became uncertain where Einstein said, “Reality is an illusion, albeit a very persistent one.”

Allison: Right.

Marcia: The brain likes to have certainty and meaning but we’re making it up. We’re totally making it up.

There’s no way of knowing what’s going to happen tomorrow as we learned and so being able to say, “Wow, every day’s a new day. What will happen today?”

To be curious about today, instead of being afraid that the next shoes going to drop and something else is going to happen because of this horrible thing that happened before.

To just accept that we don’t have control over everything. We don’t have predictability but we can put some controls into our own life and some certainty into our own lives.

That’s all we can do.

Help people understand that the fear they’re still holding on to is okay. We can still move forward courageously even when we feel fear.

Don’t judge people. Don’t try to get over it.

In my last company, we always talked about that the CEO wanted everyone to do a Tarzan swing. Yes, OK, let’s move forward and he’s like, he wouldn’t understand well, we’ve already decided we’re going to do this, why aren’t people moving forward?

He didn’t understand that they had to grieve the loss of the way it used to be before they were able to accept that the death is present and the future is now different.

That’s our new reality. That’s— And there’s going to continue to be loss and there will continue to be amazing things that emerge in the future.

We just have to count on that.

Allison: Yes. I appreciate that perspective on so many levels, Marcia, especially today. I will embrace that in all of its business.

I can’t thank you enough for joining us back here. We love having you on the Deliberate Leaders podcast.

Visit Covisioning and Learn More From Marcia Reynolds

Allison: I want to make sure that our listeners know how to connect with you, follow you, find you, get your books so could you share kind of the best avenues for that?

Marcia:  Sure. Well, my website is and all my books are listed there on my blog, tips and videos and everything. I love to share.

I’m on LinkedIn like everyone else and I have a YouTube channel that surprisingly I have over 1,000 people have subscribed because I put little tip videos a few times a month and sometimes all we have is like three minutes. In fact, I just did one on courageous presence that I just posted a few days ago. And all my books are on Amazon.

Allison: Fantastic. Marcia, it is such a pleasure to see you. I hope that one day we can connect in some place in the world in person. In the meantime, this has been amazing. Thank you so much.

Marcia:  Thank you.

I'm Allison Dunn,

Your Business Executive Coach

Join our list for exclusive tips, content and a welcome gift – our ebook on how to engage your team and boost profits.