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Book Review

Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most

by Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton and Sheila Heen

“In a charitable mood, you may think, ‘Well everyone has their opinion’ or, ‘There are two sides to every story.’ But most of us don’t really buy that. Deep down, we believe that the problem, put simply, is them.”

Difficult conversations are those conversations that make you anxious, the ones that you dread or aren't sure whether to even attempt. The authors of Difficult Conversations present tools and a clear roadmap for helping to navigate the bumpy roads associated with these challenging conversations.

In a humorous style and providing plenty of easy-to-relate-to examples, the authors point out why these conversations quickly go from bad to worse. They outline three common mistakes we all make in having these conversations:

Mistake #1: We start the conversation assuming that we are right, and the other person is wrong. The problem is that both people are “right” and difficult conversations are not about getting the facts right, but about conflicting perceptions, feelings and values.

Mistake #2: We don't ask enough questions. Most difficult conversations are spent advocating for “our side” rather than inquiring about the other person’s views.

Mistake #3: We assume that to solve the problem, we should stay rational and avoid feelings. If you're going to get to the heart of the problem, then feelings are central to the discussion.

The authors provide a five-step checklist for navigating difficult conversations:

Step One: Prepare by walking through the three conversations.

  1. Sort out what happened. What impact has the situation had on you? What might have been their intention (don’t assume bad intent, ask questions). What have you each contributed? (Stop looking for blame and focus on contribution.)
  2. Understand emotions.
  3. Ground your identity. What’s at stake for you about you? What’s at stake for the other person?

Step Two: Check your purpose and decide whether to raise the issue.

What do you hope to accomplish by having the conversation? Shift your stance to support learning, sharing and problem solving.

Step Three: Start from the Third Story

The Third story is neither your point of view nor the other person’s point of view. It's the perspective a neutral observer might tell.

Step Four: Explore Their Story and Yours

Listen to understand their perspective. Share yours. Keep reframing from truth to perception, from blame to contribution and from accusation to feelings.

Step Five: Problem Solving

Invent options that meet both side’s most important concerns and interests. Talk about how to keep communications open as you go forward.