Difficult conversations: How to identify common traps and improve important relationships

Each difficult conversation is really three conversations…a disagreement about what happened,…questions about feelings,… and an internal debate over…[who] we are.

Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton, and Sheila Heen

I first learned about Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most many years ago when my daughters and I took classes at the Girls Leadership Institute (GLI). Our instructor mentioned that some of the GLI tools on improving mother-daughter relationships and friendships were based on ideas from the book.

Given how I learned about the book, I expected to find the book in the Parenting section. Instead, I found it in Business. Of course, the placement of the book made sense when I realized the authors, Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton, and Sheila Heen are from the Harvard Negotiation Project.

Regardless of where the book is situated, it is useful in a wide array of situations both in the office and at home, providing both strategies and examples. While no quick summary can do this book justice, here are a few takeaways I found most helpful.

The main takeaway for professional settings

Each difficult conversation is never just about what was said and done. At its core, it is always about feelings…usually strong ones.  In professional settings, however, you’re expected to be rational. Moreover, it is not always appropriate to express our feelings. Yet, if you don’t address feelings…

  • Unexpressed feelings can leak into your conversation and do more damage;
  • Both parties will leave the conversation unsatisfied; and,
  • Any solution won’t be effective long-term.

The book devotes an entire chapter to feelings. Here is one helpful tidbit:

Another favorite quote

“Find the feelings lurking under attributions, judgements, and accusations. Peanuts aren’t nuts. Whales aren’t fish. Tomatoes aren’t vegetables. And, attributions, judgments, and accusations aren’t feelings…. While they may feel similar, there is a vast difference between ‘You are thoughtless and self-absorbed’ and ‘I feel hurt, confused, and embarrassed.'”

The main takeaway for personal relationships

The main reason why some conversations are particularly difficult is that they pose a threat to our identity. These kinds of conversations have the “potential to disrupt our sense of who we are in the world, or to highlight what we hope we are but fear we are not.”

As such, the book suggests ways to…

  1. Become familiar with those identity issues that are most important to you, and
  2. Learn to integrate new information into your identity that is healthy.

Yet another favorite quote

“The biggest factor that contributes to a vulnerable identity is “all-or-nothing” thinking. I’m either competent or incompetent, good or evil, worthy of love, or not. The primary peril of all-or-nothing thinking is that it leaves our identity extremely unstable, making us hypersensitive to feedback…and gives us only two choices..either we try to deny the information… or we take in the information in a way that exaggerates its importance to a crippling degree.”

Do you remember your last difficult conversation? What hidden feelings were involved? Was your identity challenged? How so?

Knitting Notes

My younger daughter allowed me to help with the sleeve of her Halloween costume.

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An older version of this book note was published in August 2014.