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difficult conversations

We’ve all had difficult conversations with spouses or partners, colleagues at work, children, and parents. We call them difficult conversations because they are just that, difficult. It may be that we are fearful of the person’s response. We don’t want to alienate them. Sometimes we don’t know how to bring up the topic because it is sensitive, so we struggle. Other times we gloss over what we really want to say and walk away knowing we didn’t make our point. What if it could be easier with ground rules that everyone followed? Wouldn’t that be great? As a certified professional organizer, I sometimes have difficult conversations with prospective clients and/or their loved ones who don’t understand why they have to declutter, where to begin, and how the process works. These are my 5 ground rules for difficult conversations. They work for me, so I want to share them with you.

Here are my 5 ground rules for difficult conversations for you to share with whomever you have your next difficult conversation. They are simple to follow and will help if all parties involved in the conversation apply them.

5 Ground Rules:

1. No name calling:

Do not start a difficult conversation about removing clutter by telling the person they are a slob, a packrat, a clutter collector, or worse – a hoarder. Remember the goal. You want to engage the person in talking about the problem. The problem is something they have.

2. Name the problem:

Begin by acknowledging that the person is not the problem. You want to be clear and let the person know you understand by stating exactly what you perceive the problem to be. Ask them if you are correct. If the answer is ‘no’, ask for them to state the problem.

You can show them that you want to talk, to have this difficult conversation, by looking at them directly. If you are in the cluttered home, avoid scanning the room and looking at the piles of stuff. They know the piles are there.

Keep your arms by your side. Avoid crossing them in front of your chest as this indicates you are protecting yourself. Also avoid placing your hands on your hips. This is a power stance and is somewhat threatening. You want to show yourself as being as neutral.

3. Give reasons to address the problem:

Explain, from your point of view, why you think this is a problem that must be addressed. Give the person the opportunity to share their point of view. Be as objective as possible. Some possible talking points are:

You want the person to be safe in their home. You have reason to believe they may not be safe.

The clutter may be getting in the way of the person’s quality of life.

Maybe the clutter is putting your relationship at risk.

It appears they are buying duplicates of things you think they may already have. Possessions are getting lost in the clutter. These are all great reasons to reduce what they have.


4. Benefits to the other person if they address the problem:

The obvious benefits are that the person will have more time because they will have less stuff to take care of.

They will save money because they will know what they have and won’t need to buy things they can’t find.

When they take the next step after reducing the clutter and organize their belongings, they will be able to have friends and family over to their home.

Your relationship will improve because the clutter will not be getting in the way.


5. Explain how you will help:

There are three great ways for you to help.

  1. You can be an accountability partner. Let the person tell you what they will do and when they will do it. You can help them brainstorm by asking what they need to accomplish the task. They may ask for an extra pair of hands, in which case, you can volunteer to be there for them.
  2. You can stay out of the way. It may be that the person is feeling crowded and pushed to get this done. Sometimes the best and most helpful thing to do is to say, “I am here for you when you decide you are ready”.
  3. You can provide financial assistance. Offering to pay for professional organizing services is a great gift to someone who is ready to declutter and wants professional help. It may also be necessary to call in a junk removal company, paying for that service is also lifting a financial burden off the person in question.

In Conclusion:

When you follow my 5 ground rules for difficult conversations you give yourself the gift of following through and addressing a tough topic. You also allow the person with whom you are talking to express their point of view without feeling threatened.

To review my 5 ground rules for difficult conversations are:

  1. No name calling
  2. Name the problem
  3. Give reasons to address the problem
  4. Benefits to the other person if they address the problem
  5. Explain how you will help

Diane N. Quintana is a Certified Professional Organizer® ,a Certified Professional Organizer in Chronic Disorganization®, Master Trainer and owner of DNQ Solutions, LLC and co-owner of Release●Repurpose●Reorganize, LLC based in Atlanta, Georgia. Contact Diane for a free 30-minute consultation.



  • Calling names is so counterproductive because people go in the defense, and nothing gets accomplished. Thank you for sharing your thoughts. I am going to be sharing this one on my social media channels. =)

  • Julie Bestry says:

    Great post. And it’s often people calling THEMSELVES names, which means that a difficult conversation can get even more difficult if the “offending” party has even offended themselves. Either way, you’ve laid out specific, actionable ways to ameliorate the situation rather than make it worse. I especially like how you separated how the “why” of addressing the problem from the benefits of doing so, as those can get muddled sometimes.

    • Diane Quintana says:

      Thank you, Julie. You are correct. We don’t need someone else to call us a name we can inflict that upon ourselves. I so appreciate your comment!

  • Seana Turner says:

    You and I are on the same page this week, Diane! That’s so fun. 🙂

    I love no name-calling. That is a definite “don’t.” Once a derogatory name has been put out there, you can’t reign it back in. The hurt is in the air. The odds of good dialogue after such an event is low. This is a terrific list, and so helpful for conversation about so many topics.

    • Diane Quintana says:

      Thank you, Seana. I love the image of having a name lingering in the air much like a cloud of dust. You are so right – being called a name hurts more and for way longer than a physical wound because you repeat it over every time you replay the conversation in your head.

  • Stating the problem is so powerful. I think bringing it out in the open challenges you to think differently. I like to ask prospective clients “What’s not working for you here” is a great way to offer them to open up and discuss the issue.

    • Diane Quintana says:

      I love that you offer your client an opening to express the problem. Thank you, Janet!

  • Sara Skillen says:

    The subtlety of looking directly at the person is huge. Most of my clients are very tuned in to body language and cues (even if they don’t realize it), and it’s obvious when someone is staring at their clutter. It makes such a difference to put the person first and the disorganization second. Great post!

  • These are excellent guidelines for having difficult conversations. It’s so important to be respectful, as you’ve described. Another thing I’d add is listening. While we can initiate a conversation, it’s important that the other person feels heard and respected. Once you have established that trust, they will be more open to hearing what you want to communicate.

    • Diane Quintana says:

      Thank you, Linda. You are absolutely right. Listening – is an important component for a successful conversation.

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