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 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. For the full details, examples and tips, do get a copy of the book, or get a detailed overview with our complete book summary bundle.
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 (click here for 16-page summary) for specific tips and examples or get the full mojo from the Difficult Conversations book.
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.
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:
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.
Other Details in “Difficult Conversations”
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. Do get a copy of the book for the full details, or get our Difficult Conversations book summary bundle for an overview of the various ideas and tips.
Master Difficult Conversations to build stronger relationships and solve problems effectively!