Tone, tempo, timing, HALT!


When a difficult conversation looms on the horizon, this jingle sometimes appears like a mist in my head. Tone, tempo, timing, HALT! blends two pieces of advice I learned from Maureen Mazzarese, a brilliant counselor.

Difficult conversations are part of any important relationship. You need to call people out on things when it matters, and you should want colleagues to call you out when they believe it’s important. Educators, for example, frequently need to address serious concerns with parents and students. Sometimes we have difficult conversations simply because hard news needs to be shared.

Regardless of WHAT makes the conversation difficult, try these two handy reminders for HOW to do it:

3T = points to consider before a difficult conversation:

TONE. The tone of voice you use can set the tone for the conversation. If you’re irritated or angry, a sarcastic or hostile tone will make it harder for the other person to hear what you have to say. Sincere (but audible!) works best, so make sure you can manage it.  

TEMPO. Borrowed from music (and Italian), tempo refers to how quickly you make your points. Sometimes the other person is still digesting Point A when you’re into Point C. If you’re talking face-to-face, body language will give you hints as to how it’s going–and when it’s time to take a break. You can also ask.

TIMING. I think of timing like the setting of a scene in a play: it's when, but also where (and who else is on stage). 

  • Choose the time of the difficult conversation carefully. First thing in the morning might be the best time–or the worst (depending on personalities, what else is going on, etc.). Don’t assume that the best time to have the chat is when you feel like having it.
  • The place of the conversation can be crucial. Hold it in a place where there’s a minimum of distraction.
  • Be mindful of audience. As any classroom teacher knows, you don’t want an audience of peers for a difficult one-on-one exchange. 


HALT = Hungry, Angry, Lonely and/or Tired

Used in AA and other recovery groups, this acronym also works well for timing interactions. A difficult conversation will likely NOT go well when any participant is feeling …

Hungry. We have the term hangry for a reason.

Angry. Simply put, anger is “the urge to destroy someone or something.”* However, Mazzarese cautions that anger is sometimes the outward manifestation of sadness, so don’t be surprised if that comes out later.

Lonely. For this purpose, we’re not talking ordinary lonely, but rather acute alienation or humiliation (or threatened personal safety) to the point of being upset.

Tired. This is your basic “too tired to concentrate.”

Address basic needs before addressing difficult topics. 


*Maultsby, Jr., M. C. Coping Better … Anytime, Anywhere: The Handbook of Rational Self-Counseling. (RBT Center, 1986) p. 32

[Article copyright 2015 by Peter Horn, Ed. D. Images from and Tiger Mountain Recovery.]

Peter Horn