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Book Summary – Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most

Difficult Conversations - Book summary

Difficult conversations are anything you have difficulty talking about, e.g. ending a relationship, asking for a pay-raise, or addressing a hurtful behavior. They are a normal, unavoidable part of our personal and professional lives. Yet, most people dread them since they can make things worse if not well-handled. In this free version of Difficult Conversations summary, we’ll outline the skills and steps (by Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton and Sheila Heen) for managing difficult conversations in a way that fosters understanding and effective problem-solving.

Difficult Conversations: An Overview

Often, we enter a conversation to deliver a message, e.g. to prove a point or get others to do what we want. Issues arise because each party focuses on his/her own agenda and viewpoint. To handle difficult conversations effectively, you must:

  • Shift your goal from persuasion to learning; and
  • Learn how to manage the 3 types of conversations.

In this article, we’ll briefly outline the issues behind difficult conversations and how to create a learning conversation. Do get a copy of our full Difficult Conversations summary for specific tips and examples.

The 3 Types of Difficult Conversations

Every difficult conversation follows a certain structure. Specifically, there are 3 types of difficult conversations, each with its own sets of issues and complications. Here’s a quick overview of the key issues and strategies to address them.  You can get specific tips, details and examples from our full book summary.

Difficult Conversations Summary_3 types of difficult conversations

The “What Happened?” Conversation

This conversation centers around different views about what happened (or should happen), who’s right, who’s to blame etc. We each feel that our viewpoint is correct, when in reality we make wrong assumptions on 3 fronts:

  • Truth: We assume that “I’m right and you’re wrong” when most difficult conversations are really about conflicts in subjective values or perceptions. For example, “you’re too inexperienced” or “you’re driving too fast” are not facts; they’re merely opinions.
  • Intention: We assume we know the intention behind the other party’s action or non-action, when we may be totally wrong, e.g. you think your colleague is shouting to humiliate you, when he’s just trying to make himself heard above the noise.
  • Blame: We’re quick to blame others, which blocks us from examining other factors (including ourselves) that may have contributed to the situation.

In our complete Difficult Conversations summary we break these down in detail, including how exactly you can:

  • Uncover the truth: Don’t argue about who’s right => Explore each other’s stories.
  • Clarify intentions: Don’t assume they meant the bad outcomes => Separate the intent of their actions from the impact.
  • Shift away from the blame-game: Don’t focus on blame => Map out the contribution system to learn what’s truly behind the problem and how to correct it.

The Feelings Conversation

Feelings are often at the heart of difficult conversations. They influence our thoughts and actions. Avoiding them will only lead to more hurt and misunderstanding. In our complete book summary, we elaborate more on how to use 3 sets of strategies to constructively express your feelings. This includes
(i) sorting out what you really feel, (ii) negotiating with your emotions, and (iii) sharing your feelings without judgment, blame or attribution.

The Identity Conversation

During difficult conversations, we’re constantly asking ourselves, “what does this say about me?” We seek to protect our sense of self. For example, a pay-raise discussion isn’t just about the money; it’s really about your self-worth and self-image.  In our Difficult Conversations summary bundle, we explain (i) the identity issues that come up in difficult conversations, (ii) why we get thrown off-balance, (iii) how you can anchor your identity, and (iv) additional tips to prepare yourself mentally in advance.

Create a Learning Conversation

Now that you understand the challenges associated with the 3 conversations, here’s an overview of the steps for preparing for and navigating a difficult conversation:

Difficult Conversations Summary_shift to learning conversations
Do get our full 16-page summary for a step-by-step guide to these 5 steps to shift from difficult conversations to learning conversations:

  1. Prepare by considering the 3 conversations
  2. Know your Purpose => Decide if you should raise the issue
  3. Start from the Third Story, i.e. what a neutral third-party may observe
  4. Explore their Story and Yours, i.e. take turns to share your respective perspectives
  5. Take the Lead in Problem-Solving. You can find a mutually-acceptable solution even if you don’t fully agree with each other.

Getting the Most from Difficult Conversations

In this article, we’ve briefly outlined some of the key insights and strategies you can use to achieve desired change. For more examples, details, and actionable tips to apply these strategies, do get our complete book summary bundle which includes an infographic, 16-page text summary, and a 25-minute audio summary.

Difficult Conversations summary - book summary bundle

This is a powerful guidebook with a rich trove of case studies and sample conversations (including examples of phrases and sentences you can use) to illustrate how discussions typically go awry, and how you can use the steps above to transform a difficult conversation into a healthy, learning conversation. Use the specific steps and tips to identify blind spots and pitfalls, and handle difficult conversations skillfully.  You can purchase the book here for the full details.

Learn more communication tips our Crucial Conversations summary and Crucial Confrontations summary!

About the Authors of Difficult Conversations

Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most is written by Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton and Sheila Heen.

Douglas Stone graduated from and now teaches Law at the Harvard Law School, where he served as Associate Director of the Harvard Negotiation Project for 10 years. He’s also a partner at Triad Consulting Group, which specializes in negotiation, communication, and conflict resolution.

Bruce Patton is a Harvard alma mater, and the co-founder and Deputy Director of the Harvard Negotiation Project. He is a partner at global consulting firm CMI/Vantage Partners LLC, which offers relationship, negotiation, and conflict management services.

Sheila Heen teaches Law at Harvard and is a partner at Triad Consulting Group. She coaches executives and teams on issues such as conflict management and racial tension.

Difficult Conversations Quotes

“Difficult conversations are almost never about getting the facts right. They are about conflicting perceptions, interpretations, and values…They are not about what is true, they are about what is important.”

“Things don’t change, because each is waiting for the other to change.”

“Often we say ‘You intended to hurt me’ when what we really mean is ‘You don’t care enough about me.’ This is an important distinction.”

“Talking about blame distracts us from exploring why things went wrong and how we might correct them going forward.”

“Feelings are too powerful to remain peacefully bottled. They will be heard one way or another.”

“Understanding feelings, talking about feelings, managing feelings—these are among the greatest challenges of being human.”

“We have a deep desire to feel heard, and to know that others care enough to listen.”

Click here to download the Difficult Conversations summary & infographic

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