Difficult Conversations: How to discuss what matters most

I just finished reading a New York Times business best seller which geeked me out big time. It’s called Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss what Matters Most. The book is based on 15 years of research at the Harvard Negotiation Project. The content walks the reader through a step-by-step approach with examples demonstrating how to have approach and handle these conversations with less stress and more success. Let’s face it, no matter how competent we are, we all have conversations that cause anxiety and frustrations. This book is the golden goose that helps us tackle these issues at home, on the job, or out in the world.

The core of difficult conversations

Difficult conversations are almost never about getting the facts right. They are about conflicting perceptions, interpretations, and values. They are not about what a contract states, they are about what a contract means. They are not about being hurt by an action or word they are about how that action or word was interpreted and the impact on our values, what it meant to me. These are not question of right or wrong, but questions of interpretation and judgement.

If your time poor then you can now stop reading because I just told you the holy grail of difficult conversations. If you want to learn more, keep on reading.

Don’t assume their intentions

It’s important to never assume the intentions of the person you are dealing with because your thinking how you feel about them will be affected by it and ultimately, how the conversation goes. So never assume we know the intentions of others when we don’t. The truth is, intentions are invisible. We assume them from other people’s behavior. In other words, we make them up, we invent them.

Because our view of others’ intentions (and their views of ours) are so important in difficult conversations, leaping to unfounded assumptions can be a disaster.

This shadows what I learnt back in May 2010 at Jeff Slayter’s seminar on the best kept secrets of modern day heroes and leaders. Jeff shared with us this same concept to never judge a person without first separating their “Behavior” from their “Intentions”. Separating these two allows you to delve open-minded and find that their intentions are not as bad as their behavior may be making us think. This is also the trait of a successful leader to be able to see past the behavior of their followers and understand their true intentions – only then is a leader capable of truly understanding their followers.

Best approach to take when communicating

If you need to deal with faults in your difficult conversation, instead of talking about those faults which automatically put people into defense & denial mode, figure out:

  1. 1. What kept them from seeing it coming and
  2. 2. How to prevent the problem from happening again.

What we are trying to do here is explore why things went wrong and how we might correct them going forward since talking about blame distracts us from a resolution.

So, instead of trying to persuade and get your way, you want to understand what has happened from the other person’s point of view, explain your viewpoint of view, share and understand feelings, and work together to figure out a way to manage the problem going forward.

“Life is just one damn thing after another.” ~ Stone, Patton, and Heen

A difficult conversations checklist

Here is a checklist to follow when having a difficult discussion:

Source: Difficult Conversations, by Stone, Patton, and Heen; p 232-233

Step 1: Prepare by Walking Through the Three Conversations
1. Sort out What happened

  • Where does your story come from (information, past experiences, rules)? Theirs?
  • What impact has this situation had on you?
  • What might their intentions have been

2. Understand Emotions

  • Explore your emotional footprint, and the bundle of emotions you experience

3. Ground Your Identity

  • What’s at stake for you about you? What do you need to accept to be better grounded?
Step 2: Check your purposes and Decide Whether to Raise the Issue
Purposes: What do you hope to accomplish by having this conversation? Shift your stance to support learning, sharing, and problem-solving.

Deciding:

  • Is this the best way to address the issue and achieve your purposes?
  • Is the issue really embedded in your Identity Conversation?
  • Can you affect the problem by changing your contributions?
  • If you don’t raise it, what can you do to help yourself let go?
Step 3: Start from the Third Story
  1. 1. Describe the problem as the difference between your stories.
    Include both viewpoints as a legitimate part of the discussion.
  2. 2. Share your purposes.
  3. 3. Invite them to join you as a partner in sorting out the situation together.
Step 4: Explore Their Story and Yours
  • Listen to understand their perspective on what happened.
    Ask questions.
    Acknowledge the feelings behind the arguments and accusations.
    Paraphrase to see if you’ve got it.
    Try to unravel how the two of you got to this place.
  • Share your own viewpoint, your past experiences, intentions, feelings.
  • Reframe, reframe, reframe to keep on track. [cf. page 204]
    From truth to perceptions
    From accusations to Intentions and impact
    From blame to contribution
    From Judgments, Characterizations to feelings
    From “What’s wrong with you” to “What’s going on for them”
Step 5: Problem-Solving
  • Invent options that meet each side’s most important concerns and interests.
  • Look to standards for what should happen.
    Keep in mind the standard of mutual care-taking; relationships that always go one way rarely last.
  • Talk about how to keep communication open as you go forward

Three Conversations


Use the following with the checklist above in Step 1: Prepare by Walking Through the Three Conversations.

Source: Difficult Conversations, by Stone, Patton, and Heen; p 18-19

Conversation A Battle of Messages A Learning Conversation
The “What Happened?” conversation.Challenge: The situation is more complex than either person can see Assumption: I know all I need to know to understand what happened

Goal: persuade them I’m right

Assumption: Each of us is bringing different information and perceptions to the table; there are likely to be important things that each of us doesn’t know

Goal: Explore each other’s stories: how we understand the situation and why.

Assumption: I know what they intended

Goal: Let them know what they did was wrong

Assumption: I know what I intended, and the impact their actions had on me. I don’t and can’t know what’s in their head.

Goal: Share the impact on me, and find out what they were thinking. Also find out what impact I’m having on them.

Assumption: It’s all their fault. (Or it’s all my fault.)

Goal: Get them to admit blame and take responsibility for making amends.

Assumption: We have probably both contributed to this mess.

Goal: Understand the contribution system; how our actions interact to produce this result.

The Feeling Conversation.Challenge: The situation is emotionally charged. Assumption: Feelings are irrelevant and wouldn’t be helpful to share. (Or, my feelings are their fault and they need to hear about them.)

Goal: Avoid talking about feelings. (Or let ’em have it!)

Assumption: Feelings are the heart of the situation. Feelings are usually complex. I may have to dig a bit to understand my feelings.

Goal: Address feelings (mine and theirs) without judgments or attributions. Acknowledge feelings before problem solving.

The Identity ConversationChallenge: The situation threatens our identity. Assumption: I’m competent or incompetent, good or bad, lovable or unlovable. There is no in-between.

Goal: Protect my all-or-nothing self-image.

Assumption: There may be a lot at stake psychologically for both of us. Each of us is complex, neither of us is perfect.

Goal: Understand the identity issues on the line for each of us. Build a more complex self-image to maintain my balance better.

It’s always best to assume that you will encounter difficult discussions, even when you have mastered the ins and our of discussing what matters most. The difference now is that having this knowledge on how to handle difficult discussions allows you to know that it’s okay to talk about them, so the misunderstandings may not be as emotionally draining and are less likely to threaten the relationship.

Here’s to discussing what matters most!
~ Ernest