Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most by Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton, Sheila Heen (Part 1)

Difficult conversations are anything that someone does not want to talk about, such as asking for a raise or complaining to a neighbor about his barking dog. People are usually reluctant to open a difficult conversation out of fear of the consequences. Typically, when the conversation does occur the parties think and feel a lot more than they actually say.

Underlying every difficult conversation are actually 3 deeper conversations.

The “What happened?” conversation usually involves disagreement over what happened, what should happen, and who is to blame.

The “Feelings” conversation is about the parties’ emotions, and their validity.

The “Identity” conversation is an internal conversation that each party has with herself, over what the situation tells her about who she is.

The “What Happened” Conversation:

The first mistake that people make as they consider what happened is that they assume they are looking at a factual matter, and they assume that their view of the matter is right. Often parties agree on the bare facts. They differ in their interpretation of what the facts mean, and of what is important. To move toward a leaning conversation, parties must shift from certainty about their own views, to curiosity about the other’s views of the situation. Parties should also try to understand why they interpret the situation in the particular way they do. The authors recommend adopting the “And Stance, acknowledging both your own views and their (differing) views.

The second set of mistakes concerns understanding the parties’ intentions. People tend to assume that they know what the other’s intentions are. However, our beliefs about another’s intentions are often wrong. We base our assumptions on our own feelings; if I feel hurt then you must have meant to be hurtful. We also tend to think the worst of others, and the best of ourselves. Another mistake is to assume that once we explain that our intentions were benign, the other party has no reason to feel hurt. To avoid the first mistake, parties must avoid making the leap from impact to intent. Ask the other what their intent was. Remain open-minded about your own interpretation of their intent. Avoid the other mistake by acknowledging the other’s feelings, and by considering the possibility of your own complex motives.

A third mistake in the “What happened?” conversation occurs when parties focus on assigning blame. “Focusing on blame is a bad idea because it inhibits our ability to learn what’s really causing the problem and to do anything meaningful to correct it.” (p. 59) The solution is to focus on mapping each party’s contribution to the situation. Contribution emphasizes understanding causes, joint responsibility, and avoiding future problems. Acknowledging one’s own contributions can help shift the other party away from blaming. Contributing to a situation does not imply being blameworthy for that situation; leaving your car unlocked contributes to its being stolen, but certainly does not make you to blame for the theft. Parties may contribute to a problematic situation by having avoided dealing with it in the past or by being unapproachable. Differences in personality or role assumptions can contribute to creating a situation. Using role reversal and adopting a disinterested perspective can help in creating a thorough map of the contribution system.

This book summary written by: Conflict Research Consortium Staff; lightly edited by NSC. The “Feelings” Conversation and the “Identity” Conversation follow in separate blogs.

As always, I share what I most want and need to learn. – Nathan S. Collier