Difficult Conversations – How to discuss what matters most

 I just finished rereading a book my good friend Hugh gave me when I was working at Cape Clear. Its called Difficult Conversations and its written by a group who worked in the Harvard Negotiation Project. The books introduction is typical of the general style,

“Asking for a raise. Ending a relationship. Giving a critical performance review. Saying no to someone in need. Confronting disrespectful or hurtful behaviour. Disagreeing with the majority in a group. Apologizing.

At work, at home, and across the backyard fence, difficult conversations are attempted or avoided every day.”

The book then goes on to describe how these conversations can go wrong, where they go wrong but most importantly, it equips the reader with a set of tools to make the process less fraught with fear and anxiety.

They specifically talk about changing the terms of a conversation from a message delivery stance to a learning stance and they refer to the three parallel conversations that are going on in any difficult conversation,

  • The What Happened Conversation: Both parties views of the events, where both sides only have a partial view of their counterparties situation.
  • The Feelings Conversation: What are my feelings, what are the other persons feelings, do my feelings have validity, show I show or conceal my feelings.
  • The Identity Conversation: What does this conversation mean for me, am I good or bad person, competent or incompetent, lovable or unloveable.

Once you can decipher and seperate these conversations you begin to understand that these are the same conversations your counterparty is having. They then they provide tools to analyse and restructure the conversation so you should get into less difficultly.

A typical device is “and stance” which allows you to articulate seemingly contradictory positions. By using the and stance we avoid contradicting ourselves while at the same time including the other persons point of view. I realise you are our most experienced engineer and I still need you to arrive on time each morning. I really appreciate your efforts during the delivery push last month and I still have concerns about your overall suitability for this role. This and many other devices like it allow us to work through situations that previously would cause us greate distress with renewed enthusiasm and hope.

This is a short book that is easily consumed in a single sitting, but if you are like me you will find yourselve returning to it on many occasions.

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