As part of a book club, I just finished reading Difficult Conversations [How To Discuss What Matters Most] by Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton and Sheila Heen (Second edition, Penguin Books, New York, 2010). While its advice is geared towards the layman, as an experienced neutral, I found some interesting nuggets within its chapters.

By “difficult conversation”, the authors refer to all those conversations we dread having or find difficult to bring up and discuss. They are those conversations that bring on awkwardness, dread or discomfort or ones in which we feel vulnerable or bring up issues relating to our self-esteem. (Id. at xxvii).

In any “difficult conversation”, we are having three conversations. The first is the “what happened” conversation in which, as the name implies, we try to figure out who is “right” and who is “wrong” and where the blame should be placed. Why did the mistake happen and who is at fault? (Id. at 7.)

The second is the “feelings” conversation which, again, as the name implies, our feelings come into play. Are our feelings valid? Appropriate? Am I the crazy one or is the other person crazy? Should I feel angry? Hurt? Frustrated et cetera. (Id. at 7-8.)

The third is the “identity” conversation which is the one we have with the little person inside our head about our self-image, competency, being good vs bad, our self-esteem, our future or our well-being. (Id. at 8.)

So- how do we successfully navigate these three conversations and thus the “difficult conversation”? The key is active listening, looking at the situation as would an outsider and looking for positive ways to move forward.

In the first conversation, the “what happened” conversation, rather than take the position that you are right and the other person is wrong, ask questions and be curious. Rather than assume that you know what the other person is thinking or why she did or failed to do something, ask questions in a non-judgmental way. Recognize that everyone sees the world differently, and that there often is no “right” or “wrong” way or one way to do something. Be curious and actively listen to what the other has to say about “what happened”. In turn, express how you “contributed” to the situation, what you were thinking and why you did what you did or did not do. Look at the situation as would a third person observing what each of you contributed to the situation. (Id. at 25-82.)

The second conversation, the “feelings” conversation, is a bit more difficult. In listening to the other person speak, listen for the emotions that she is expressing and acknowledge those feelings. Again, active listening and empathy are key. Discuss your feelings and theirs. Give a label to the feeling you are both feeling and hearing the other person express. If you hear “frustration” in someone’s voice, acknowledge it: “you are frustrated! Tell me more about it….”. Only after we acknowledge both our feelings and those of the other, can the conversation move forward towards a resolution. (Id. at 86-108.)

The third conversation, the “identity” conversation, is the one we have with ourselves: It is our inner person asking us whether we are competent, whether we are a good person or whether we are worthy of love. (Id. at 111-113.) The authors suggest that we recognize and accept the obvious; we are not perfect, we will make mistakes, and we all need to learn to “live with it.” (Id. at 119-122.)

Another conversation we should have with ourselves is to ask whether the issue is even worth bringing up, or should we let it go. (Id. at 132-146.). What is the purpose of raising the issue and what do you hope to accomplish by doing so? It may just be better to let it slide. (Id. at 131-146.)

Once these conversations have occurred, you can begin problem solving or brain storming options to resolve the matter; how to move forward so that the situation does not happen again. In doing this, the authors again suggest active listening, reframing, paraphrasing, acknowledging, being curious and not judgmental. (Id. at 147-234.)

In sum, the book provides a good road map on resolving disputes and how to make those “difficult” conversations much less difficult!

…. Just something to think about.


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