Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most

164Review by Dr. Alice Waagen

Despite our best attempts to stay calm, cool, and collected when dealing with a workplace conflict, certain talks still cause us anxiety.

No matter how much we plan, rehearse, and promise to stay unemotional, these discussions often degenerate into battles that make an already bad situation that much worse.

It’s no wonder that our natural instinct is to avoid these workplace confrontations.

Of course, you can’t always run and hide from the tough stuff in life. So before you sit down for your next tough talk, buy yourself a copy of Difficult Conversations, by Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton, and Sheila Heen.

This team of researchers hails from the Harvard Negotiation Project, and has done us an enormous favor by translating research on negotiation skills into a pragmatic framework that is perfect for office discourse.

Inside the Conversation

The first section of the book outlines the structure of a difficult conversation, and explains that each of these contentious talks is made up of three conversations that we have in our heads:

1. The “What Happened?” Conversation: The authors tell us to stop arguing about who’s right and explore each other’s stories.

They also suggest that we not assume the other person meant what they said, and help readers to disentangle intent from impact. Finally, they insist that we all abandon blame and instead map out what they define as the “contribution system.”

2. The Emotions Conversation: The authors encourage us to ask ourselves whether we are in control of our feelings — or if they are in control of us.

3. The Identity Conversation: Here, we are guided to ground our identity and ask ourselves what’s at stake.

The Solution: The Learning Conversation

After helping us to sort out the types of conversations that we have been having for years, and understanding why they may not be effective, the authors teach us to create conversations that will make a real impact. Here’s a taste.

1. Define your purpose. “You can’t have every difficult conversation you come across,” the authors realize. “Life is too short, the list too long. So how do you decide when to have a conversation, for the first time or the 15th? And how do you let go of the issues you decide not to raise?” In this section we learn to differentiate.

2. Understand the “third story.” “The most stressful moment of a difficult conversation is often the beginning,” say the authors in Chapter 8. “We may learn in the first few seconds that the news for us is not good, that the other person sees things very differently, that we aren’t likely to get what we want.”

They add that while the beginning is often fraught with peril, it is also an opportunity to change the direction of the conversation.

3. Listen from the inside out. “Some people think they are already good listeners. Others know they are not, but don’t much care,” we learn in Chapter 9. If you are in either group, you might be temped to skip this chapter. Don’t.

Why I love this book

I have owned a copy of this book for years. In fact, it is dog-eared and torn. I have used this simple structure to coach and advise managers who daily face difficult, and potentially devastating, discussions.

The tools and techniques in this book give us all a way to create a respectful and supportive relationship with staff by resolving grievances and disputes in a thoughtful and focused manner.

As a manager, you couldn’t ask for more.

Click here to buy the book.