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Difficult Conversations considers just how vital communication is across all parts of our life. Excellent communication is essential for formal negotiations but is also crucial for everyday interactions. Specifically, though, humans struggle with certain types of conversation. Subsequently, we avoid these difficult conversations even if they are essential for success. Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton, and Sheila Heen use this book to shed light on why specific conversations are difficult. Plus, why humans tend to poorly deal with these conversations. The book suggests how we can utilize specific techniques to have more productive discussions.
About Douglas Stone
Douglas Stone is a Managing Partner at Triad Consulting Group and a Lecturer on Law at Harvard Law School, where he teaches negotiation. Through Triad, he consults with various organizations, including Fidelity, Honda, HP, IBM, and Microsoft. His articles on negotiation and conflict resolution have appeared in the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times.
About Bruce Patton
Bruce Patton collaborated with Roger Fisher to pioneer the teaching of negotiation at Harvard Law School. Bruce was the Thaddeus R. Beal Lecturer on Law for 15 years. He teaches the Negotiation Workshop and Advanced Negotiation Workshop at the Harvard Negotiation Institute. Plus, he works on the Program on Negotiation for Senior Executives.
About Sheila Heen
Sheila Heen has been a Lecturer on Law at Harvard Law School since 1995. She has spent the last twenty years with the Harvard Negotiation Project, developing negotiation theory and practice. Plus, Heen also teaches executive education programs at the Program on Negotiation. Heen is a Founder and CEO of Triad Consulting. Triad Consulting is a corporate education and consulting firm based in Harvard Square, serving clients on six continents.
“Difficult conversations are almost never about getting the facts right. They are about conflicting perceptions, interpretations, and values”– Douglas Stone, et al.
This book is based on the premise that we face difficult conversations daily. For example, apologizing to loved ones or telling your boss that you are looking for other jobs. Daily we have a decision to make: Do we avoid these difficult conversations, or do we tackle them head-on?
Various conversations can be considered difficult, and these will depend on the individual. Difficult conversations are not solely limited to common conversations about sexuality, race, gender, politics, and religion. They can be any conversation that makes us feel vulnerable, awkward, or uncomfortable. These are the conversations that we are likely to put off and leave for another time. For example, returning an item you recently bought can be a difficult conversation.
Sort Out the Three Types of Conversation
In the first chapter of this book, the authors outline how each difficult conversation has three hidden conversations underpinning it. This concept is something that the authors noticed after studying hundreds of conversations. Importantly, they also identified that if people can understand the structure of their difficult conversations, they can make them more productive.
Type 1 – The What Happened Conversation
These conversations relate to disagreements over what happened or what should have happened. This type of conversation can take many forms. For example, the conversation could consider: who said what, who did what, who’s right, who meant what, and who’s to blame.
Type 2 – The Feelings Conversation
Additionally, every difficult conversation involves those involved wondering whether their feelings are valid. Should you be angry/upset? Is it reasonable if the other participant in the conversation does not acknowledge how you are feeling? Additionally, you might be wondering whether you have hurt the other participant’s feelings in the conversation. Emotions must be addressed in the conversation.
Type 3 – The Identity Conversation
The identity conversation is the conversation we have with ourselves. This conversation covers what this situation means to you. With difficult conversations, we often second guess ourselves. We consider whether we are coming across as competent, kind, and lovable. These conversations involve questioning our identity. We worry these conversations will impact our self-image and our self-esteem.
Every conversation involves confronting all three types of conversation. Each of them underpins difficult conversations and, therefore, we must learn how to manage each type simultaneously.
The Learning Conversation
Whether we like to admit it or not, starting a difficult conversation can often be motivated by selfish reasons. We want to prove a point, give somebody a telling off, or ask something of the other person. However, understanding the mistakes frequently made within the three difficult conversations should help you view them differently. You will start to appreciate the complexity of the perceptions and intentions you and your fellow conversation participant hold. By doing this, you will no longer be using difficult conversations to deliver a message based on yourself. Instead, you will be sharing information and asking questions. All in all, your conversation will be moving towards a conversation based on learning. This type of conversation will help you solve the issues surrounding the what happened conversation.
You should not approach difficult conversations believing you are correct. Instead, engage in a learning conversation that involves accepting that each participant will bring different information and perceptions to the table. Each of us has essential information that we are unaware of. The goal of these difficult conversations should be to explore these differences productively.
Improving the What Happened Conversation
“Interpretations and judgments are important to explore. In contrast, the quest to determine who is right and who is wrong is a dead-end”– Douglas Stone, et al.
The first tip provided by this book is to put yourself in the other person’s shoes. It is often easy to finish a difficult conversation confused about how irrational the other person is without considering their perspective. You must learn to accept that the other participant is a different person with different perspectives. Therefore, it is normal for them to have inconsistent conclusions. Differences in views are often due to differences in the information you have been exposed to. Therefore, you should avoid being offended by someone who disagrees with you and investigate whether the other person knows something you don’t yet know.
Secondly, this book’s authors encourage their readers to avoid assuming the other person has ill intentions. They provide an example of when a friend comments on how tired you are. Instead of perceiving this as an insult, consider how your friend is looking out for your health and well-being. They care for you. In sum, don’t always assume the worst of the participants in your conversations.
Finally, you need to stop blaming others. If the other participant misunderstands you in a heated conversation, it isn’t necessarily their fault. Identify each person’s contributions in the conversation and take responsibility for working through the situation together. Adopting this approach will allow you to come to an understanding.
Try to ask yourself the following questions:
- Where did the miscommunication begin?
- How did you both contribute to the mess?
- What can you both do to move forward?
Improving the Feelings Conversation
“Receiving feedback sits at the intersection of these two needs—our drive to learn and our longing for acceptance”– Douglas Stone, et al.
Identify Your Emotional Footprint
Controlling our feelings and emotions during a difficult conversation is harder than it sounds. Our emotions are often uncontrollable. We also suppress our true feelings when we feel embarrassed or hurt. The learning conversation can help us address our feelings by acknowledging the importance of expressed and unexpressed emotions. However, this conversation requires specific skills.
Firstly, you must address your own emotions during difficult conversations. Consider why you react the way you do within certain situations. For example, think about how you handled emotions as a child and whether this aligns with how you now handle difficult conversations. Plus, consider how those around you reacted to how you handled difficult conversations when you were younger.
This process identifies your natural emotional footprint during difficult conversations. After this, it is essential to negotiate these emotions. Your perceptions and views underpin your emotions. Therefore, attempt to reconsider your perceptions within these difficult conversations. Rather than reacting automatically to difficult conversations, try to consider other perspectives. Even considering an alternative perspective can calm down your automatic emotional responses to a difficult conversation.
Finally, the authors recommend sharing your emotions. Your difficult conversations will remain unproductive if you are unwilling to share both the good and bad emotions associated with those conversations. Do not just state, “I am angry.” Instead, ask the other person why they find this conversation essential and provide a deeper reason for your emotions. Additionally, avoid accusatory exaggerations when explaining how the conversation makes you feel and why you feel this way. You do not want to be accusing the other person through claims of “you always” or “you never.” These statements are unfairly labeling the person. Instead, try to help the other person understand your viewpoint and your emotional reaction. Then, ask them how their viewpoint and emotional reaction differs, as well as why.
Improving the Identity Conversation
“Working to keep negative information out during a difficult conversation is like trying to swim without getting wet”– Douglas Stone, et al.
Avoid Absolutes With Identity
When considering identity, it is easy for us to list a few terms that describe how we identify ourselves. The issue with identity conversations is when we only utilize absolutes. Often we perceive ourselves as either being loyal or a cheater, loving or hateful. Identities are never absolutes. Difficult conversations can quickly make us question our identity. Hence, as we identify through absolutes, we visualize difficult conversations as an attack on our self-image. For instance, perhaps you consider yourself as a loyal person. Imagine receiving an offer to work at a high-salaried competing firm in a more enjoyable role. Accepting this offer could lead to you becoming confused about your identity if you work in absolutes. Accepting the position would make you a disloyal person, right? Instead, you should challenge that thought. Consider how you have been loyal in the past and still been grossly underpaid in your job. Plus, you would be prioritizing more loyalty to your family by providing for them through a better-paid job. This example showcases how identity is not all or nothing.
Mistakes are Inevitable
These examples offer support for the book’s notion that we should stop wasting our time and energy on challenging others who question our self-identity. Instead, accept that you will make mistakes. Accept that your intentions are complex and that you have probably contributed to this problem’s difficulty. Doing this will help you accept that the other participants can also make mistakes.
The authors encourage the readers to remind themselves that they cannot control another person’s actions. Instead, you can only control the way you react to the person’s actions. You can imagine how the other person might respond and how these responses might question your identity. Also, try to review the conversation on balance. This conversation will probably be unimportant in the long-term. Therefore, instead, use these conversations to learn rather than somewhere to place all your importance.
Finally, the book recommends sometimes taking a break from a difficult conversation. It is easy to become emotionally overwhelmed during difficult conversations, as these conversations are often linked with both of your identities. If you feel overwhelmed, you should ask the other participant for some time to think about what they have said.
Tell the Third Story
“Explicit disagreement is better than implicit misunderstanding.”– Douglas Stone, et al.
When beginning a difficult conversation, you must remember to never start with your side of the story. Starting with our story risks threatening the self-image of the other person. Instead of telling the story from your point of view, start the story by explaining the situation from an impartial observer’s perspective. Speak objectively about the situation. After you have done this, you can extend an invitation to the person you want to have a conversation with. In this way, you start the conversation with an understanding of solving a problem. This understanding allows the conversation to start without judgment. Plus, the conversation will be framed like you are working together to find a solution.
The conversation should then start by explaining to them how you want to understand their perspective better. Try to emphasize that you want to come to an agreement together. You want their help to make the outcome a productive one.
Finally, make sure that you are persistent. Likely, defensiveness will still creep into the conversation. Be open to these responses and let them share their defensive emotions, and then you can share yours. Ensure you listen to the other person’s responses, demonstrating that you understand what they are saying.
Final Points and the Five Steps to Successful Difficult Conversations
As humans, we often shy away from difficult conversations. However, they are some of the most important conversations. We need to approach these conversations in the right way to make them productive. Try to transform each conversation into a learning conversation. Accept that others will have a different perspective. Remember, each person has strengths that will help make the conversation a productive one. Recognize the emotions you often experience during difficult conversations, consider why this might be, and learn to share them. The other person’s emotions are just as valid as yours. Finally, remember that your identity does not work in absolutes, and it can also change.
The Five Steps to Successful Difficult Conversations
Before every difficult conversation, make sure that you have in mind the following points:
- Prepare yourself for the conversation by considering the three conversations for both sides. So, think about what happened from both points of view. Be clear on your emotions and ground your identity.
- Decide whether it is even worth raising the conversation. For it to be worthy, it must be underpinned by good purposes. These are learning, sharing, and problem-solving. Avoid difficult conversations that are merely for blaming and judging others.
- If you decide the conversation is worth engaging with, make sure you start with the third story. Start the conversation as an impartial observer and move towards inviting them to join you in solving the problem.
- Explore their three stories, and then yours. If the conversation goes off-course, then be sure you reframe it back on track.
- Problem-solve throughout the conversation. Identify ideas that could solve both sides and ways in which future conversations could be engaged in productively.
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