Having Difficult Conversations More Effectively

This is an edited summary of my blog post of May 31, 2013, in response to inquiries about how to have difficult conversations more effectively.

Communication fads come and go, but difficult conversations are here to stay, so information that helps us to have them more productively is welcome. The books, “Difficult Conversations,” and “Crucial Conversations” describe a number of ideas, attitudes and skills to help. Most of the concepts I’ll mention come from “Difficult Conversations.” “Crucial Conversations” looks at the same territory in a somewhat different way, with one very important difference.

We All Have Difficult Conversations

Communication fads come and go–there’s a new one every few years in the worlds of human education, therapy, human relations and organizational training—but difficult conversations are here to stay.  In my work, four impressions have become clear:

1. Many difficult conversations that go badly don’t need to be had at all. They occur because of a misunderstanding that could have been cleared up through simple inquiry, or because people acted on feelings and assumptions they should have taken time and effort to understand and manage rather than “letting them out the door” prematurely.

2. Many difficult conversations that should be had are avoided, because the people who need to initiate and manage them don’t know how to. The result is that bad consequences happen because no one is dealing with a problem that needs to be dealt with.

3. When difficult conversations are necessary, there are attitudes and skills that can help them to go better.  Such conversations can be useful and even healing.

4. When difficult conversations happen without the necessary attitudes and skills, they can be counterproductive, with people feeling worse, and attitudes, perhaps based on incomplete information, hardened.

The book “Difficult Conversations,” by Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton, and Sheila Heen, of the Harvard Negotiation Project, takes an in-depth look at how difficult conversations can go wrong, and describes a set of concepts, attitudes and skills to support having difficult conversations more effectively and productively.  I’ve found it useful in my work in individual and couples therapy and organizational consultation and training.  It’s on Amazon at:  https://www.amazon.com/Difficult-Conversations-Discuss-What-Matters/dp/0143118447/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1508357024&sr=8-1&keywords=difficult+conversations+how+to+discuss+what+matters+most

Some Key Ideas From “Difficult Conversations:”

1. Shift from a Conflict Conversation to a “Learning Conversation.”

The purpose of applying the “Difficult Conversations” methods is to move difficult conversations from being antagonistic or adversarial conversations, in which people are attacking and defending, or trying to achieve goals through power or manipulation, to being learning conversations in which both parties are listening to one another as well as saying what they need to say.

2. The “Three Conversations.”  A key idea in “Difficult Conversations: is that every difficult conversation is really three conversations:  1. The “What Happened” conversation, consisting of “3 stories” (see below),  2. The “Feelings” conversation, and 3. The “Identity” conversation.

3. What Happened: The Three Stories.  There are three stories about “what happened” in every difficult conversation: each party’s story or version of events, and the “third story.” The “third story” is the story which might be told by an impartial third party, such as a mediator, which includes elements of each party’s story without casting any blame.

For example, in a school situation, a parent and teacher might need to have a difficult conversation about a child’s failure to complete his homework.  Let’s say that Johnny, a fifth grader, has stopped handing in his homework and is falling behind in class. The teacher’s story is that she is sending homework home with Johnny but his parents are not following through to make sure that he does it. Johnny’s parents both have demanding jobs and the teacher thinks that they are just too drained when they get home to have the energy to do the difficult work of making Johnny do homework, especially if he doesn’t want to do it. She also thinks Johnny’s parents might feel guilty about spending so much time away from home at work, so they might be overly permissive and allow him to avoid homework.

Johnny’s parents’ story, on the other hand, is that Johnny is being bullied by a bunch of kids at school, and he’s hurt, sad and angry about it, and doesn’t want to even think about school once he’s out of there. So that’s why they think Johnny isn’t doing his homework. And they think his teacher is either accepting other students bullying him as normal behavior and letting it happen, or she’s too weak to stop it, or she is just too inattentive to even notice that it’s happening.

The “third story” is that Johnny is not doing his homework and falling behind in school, so now his teacher and parents need to look at this together to try to understand why he’s falling behind and see how they can work together to help him get back on track.

The “Difficult Conversations” authors suggest starting a difficult conversation with the “third story.” Johnny’s teacher might do that at the beginning of her meeting with his parents, to start the conversation on a good foundation that she can “reframe” back to if the conversation is in danger of becoming undermined or blown up as it progresses.

4. The “Feelings Conversation.”  According to “Difficult Conversations,” every difficult conversation is powered by feelings, which are often not acknowledged. It can be very important to acknowledge these feelings without letting them undermine the conversation. For example, Johnny’s parents may feel angry about Johnny’s being bullied at school, helpless to do anything about it, and let down by his teacher. His teacher may feel let down by Johnny’s parents, and angry at them for unfairly blaming her, like a scapegoat. It’s important for both parties to acknowledge and respect one another’s feelings, while not letting them derail the conversation. If someone becomes too upset, taking a time out and returning to the conversation in a few minutes, or even rescheduling it to another day, can help to keep it on track.

5. “Reframing.”  Reframing is one of the most important “Difficult Conversations” skills. If Johnny’s parents accuse his teacher of not caring about him, she could allow the conversation to get blown off course, by reacting defensively or counterattacking, or she could reframe the conversation by interpreting their comments as an expression of their concern, emphasizing that she is concerned too–that’s why she called the meeting–and getting the conversation back on track.

6. The “Identity Conversation.”  The “identity conversation” could be described as the stake that each person’s ego or self has in their personal or professional role in the conversation. For example, if Johnny’s parents accuse his teacher of not caring about Johnny, they are attacking her identity as a teacher. If she then gets stuck in defending herself–”of course I care about him, I’ve been a teaching for a dozen years and I care about every one of my students!”–or gets too upset to remember her agenda for the meeting and keep managing her role as facilitator, the conversation is likely to become useless or counterproductive. And of course the same thing could happen if she counterattacks Johnny’s parents with: “If you took your parenting responsibilities more seriously, you’d make sure he got his homework done!”

7. Reframe From Blame to Contribution.  The “Difficult Conversations” authors regard the establishment of blame as not a useful strategy. Instead, they assert, it’s more useful to think in terms of the relative contribution of each party. In our example, it doesn’t really help anyone for Johnny’s parents blame his teacher or his teacher to blame his parents. But if, as a result of the difficult conversation, Johnny’s parents and teacher can have a learning conversation, the teacher might realize that she’s contributed to the problem by not being aware that Johnny was being picked on (or at least feeling picked on), and his parents might realize that they’ve contributed by letting Johnny avoid his homework.

8. Avoid “Intention Invention.”  By “intention invention,” the authors mean that we make up reasons about why we think someone we’re in a conflict with is doing whatever they’re doing, when in fact we don’t really know why they’re doing it.  “Intention Invention” reminds me of two rather complicated ideas, which I’ll mention without going into in depth: “attribution” in cognitive psychology, and “projective identification” in psychoanalytic psychology.

The “Difficult Conversation” authors emphasize that most of what we do has multiple motivational sources. In our school example, Johnny may be falling behind in his homework partly because he’s being picked on, partly because he feels the teacher doesn’t like him, partly because he finds the work difficult and would rather avoid it, partly because there are more enjoyable activities for him to do after school, and partly because he can get his parents to let him, which makes him feel special as well as getting away with not doing it.  His teacher and parents will have similar multiple motivations contributing to their own perceptions, feelings, and attributions. So it’s generally a mistake to think that someone we’re in a conflict with is doing whatever they’re doing for only one reason,; or that we ourselves are. We are almost always operating on the basis of a mixture of motivations.  “Intention invention” is a modern version of the old saying, “Give a dog a bad name and hang it.”

9. Authentic Listening.  Authentic listening is a key skill in any difficult conversation. Everyone knows that you’re supposed to listen, but people often just go through the motions of listening, and sooner or later the other person usually gets this.  You don’t have to accept what the other person says, or thinks, but you have to really be there, and really listen.

“Crucial Conversations” and the importance of truth

Another book that provides insight, attitudes and skills for having difficult conversations effectively is “Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When the Stakes Are High,” by Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, Ron McMillan, and Al Switzler. “Crucial Conversations” provides ideas such as “Speaking Persuasively, Not Abrasively” and “Making It Safe” in a conversation, and many others, covering much of the same territory as “Difficult Conversations,” in another way. But one key difference between “Crucial Conversations” and “Difficult Conversations” is in the attitude toward truth.  It’s on Amazon at:  (https://www.amazon.com/Crucial-Conversations-Talking-Stakes-Second/dp/0071771328/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1508357115&sr=1-1&keywords=crucial+conversations+tools+for+talking+when+stakes+are+high).

“Difficult Conversations,” holds that each person has their own truth; there isn’t necessarily an objective truth per se, so what’s important is that the parties can listen to one another and have a learning conversation about how each other is seeing things. “Crucial Conversations,” on the other hand, sees objective truth as existing in situations, so much so that the goal of conversational skill is to be able to speak the truth about a situation in a way that everyone in the conversation can hear it. So, in “Difficult Conversations,” there’s my truth, and your truth, and we have to work it out. In “Crucial Conversations,” there’s the truth, and we have to be able to acknowledge it together.

In my work, I’ve coined the phrase, “the minimum necessary truth.” In a difficult situation, we may not have have access to the complete truth—when do we ever?—or even to a larger view of what’s true, but there is a minimum necessary amount of truth which must be acknowledged if things are to get better.

“Them and Us:” Arthur Deikman

Psychiatrist Arthur Deikman (www.Deikman.com) makes an important contribution in his book, “Them and Us: Cult Thinking and the Terrorist Threat.”  Deikman discusses the effect of propaganda and how cult-like thinking can foster the illusion of debate of issues rather than genuine consideration. “In most conflict situations, disagreements are based on differences in interpretation and in the priorities given to different values, but these differences are seldom stated, and, lacking that clarification, we absorb highly selective information, are swayed to one side or the other, but end up no wiser…opposing propagandas do not assist the democratic process but produce partisans, each with the mind-set of a cult member…” It’s easy to see how the same attitudes undermine the necessary difficult conversations of life, when the participants try to win (however they define that) rather than have an actual conversation.

Deikman indicates four areas that can usefully be clarified in the discussion of a controversial problem:

“1. The key data. (Are they disputed?)

2. Interpretations of the data.

3. Value conflicts. (Reason for giving one value priority over the other?)

4. Error indicators. (What events or facts would indicate to each side that their belief or strategy should be changed?)”

Clearly these ideas, and the attitudes underlying them, can usefully be included in many difficult conversations.  “Them and Us” is on Amazon at:  (https://www.amazon.com/Them-Us-Thinking-Terrorist-Threat/dp/097200212X/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1508357180&sr=1-1&keywords=the+and+us+deikman).

Application: From Passive to Active Understanding

The attitudes and skills for having difficult conversations more successfully are not easy for most of us to acquire and use. We generally don’t learn them through our professional education, or even our moral, religious, or spiritual education. Doing difficult conversations well requires a lot of executive functioning; staying on task, not taking criticisms and attacks too personally, continually monitoring the conversation and reframing as necessary.

Psychologists distinguish between different forms of learning, such as semantic and procedural. It’s one thing to know the key ideas about how to have difficult conversations more effectively so that one can define them or answer multiple choice questions about them. It’s entirely another thing to know them deeply enough to apply them in actual situations. When I’ve taught these concepts to groups with lecture and slide show, I’ve often found that people seem to understand them intellectually pretty well, but when we start discussing cases or role playing, they revert instantly to a “them and us” attitude.

One of my favorite teaching stories is about Ibrahim Ben Adhem, a prince who, like the Buddha, left his royal home to seek knowledge. As he was walking down the road he came across a stone on which was written: “Turn me over and read.” Turning the stone over, Ben Adhem read: “Why do you seek more knowledge when you pay no heed to what you already know?” (Retold by Idries Shah in his Caravan of Dreams, within the narrative, “Encounter At A Hermitage.”  On Amazon at:  https://www.amazon.com/Caravan-Dreams-Idries-Shah/dp/178479015X/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1508355989&sr=8-1&keywords=caravan+of+dreams+idries+shah)

This is why experiential learning is so important when it comes to learning difficult conversation skills (and many other relationship skills!). Discussion of actual case situations, and role playing of actual and simulated situations helps to bring home the meaning of attitudes and skills for difficult conversations. Even participants who just watch can potentially benefit from watching others.

Learning a concept doesn’t necessarily mean knowing it deeply enough to apply it, and we all tend to revert to old habits and “them and us” attitudes in actual situations. So, in addition to presenting the information, I recommend depth learning through experiential methods, including discussion of cases in detail, role playing, and pre-conversation preparation and and post-conversation reflection and debriefing.


(I don’t know why one Amazon book link came out live and the others didn’t!)