Delivering a difficult message is like throwing a hand grenade. Coated with sugar, thrown hard or soft, a hand grenade is still going to do damage. Try as you may, there is no way to throw a hand grenade with tact or to outrun the consequences. And keeping it to yourself is no better. Choosing not to deliver a difficult message is like hanging on to a hand grenade once you’ve pulled the pin. (p. xxix-xxx)
The quote above is one of the best in the book. The Charlotte Law Library staff read and discussed Difficult Conversations during our staff meetings. We have all experienced difficult conversations so this book is applicable to both work and outside work life. Although published in 1999, the techniques offered by the authors still resonate today.
Stone, Patton and Heen teach at Harvard Law School and work for the Harvard Negotiation Project (HNP), whose mission is to improve the theory and practice of conflict resolution and negotiation by working on real world conflict intervention, theory building, education and training and disseminating new ideas. This is the group that produced the classic book Getting to yes: Negotiating agreement without giving in. Last year Stone and Heen published Thanks for the feedback: The science and art of receiving feedback well.
The authors define a difficult conversation as “anything you find hard to talk about.” (p. xxvii). Their solution to a difficult conversation is the “learning conversation.” Instead of trying to convey information or explain yourself; in their approach, you want to listen and learn about what’s going on with the other person.
There are five steps in the process of creating a Learning Conversation:
Step 1: Prepare by Walking Through the Three Conversations
Within every difficult conversation there are actually three conversations: the What Happened conversation, the Feelings conversation, and the Identity conversation. Before starting the difficult conversation, think about these three conversations.
- Sort out What Happened. We assume we know everything about what happened to understand a situation. Think about where your story comes from (your past experiences and views) and theirs. We assume we know their intentions and those are not always correct. What impact has this situation had on you? Figure out where your story is different from theirs. What have each of you contributed to the problem?
- Understand Emotions (Feelings). Think about your bundle of emotions. What are you feeling?
- Ground your Identity. What’s at stake? How do you see yourself? What do you need to accept to be better grounded?
Step 2: Check your Purposes and Decide Whether to Raise the Issue.
What do you hope to accomplish by having this conversation? How can you shift your stance to support learning, sharing and problem solving? Is this conversation the best way to address the issue and achieve your purposes? If you don’t raise it, what can you do to help yourself let go?
Step 3: Start from the Third Story.
If you decide to deal with this issue, don’t start with your story. Begin as a neutral party and describe the problem as the difference between your stories. Include both viewpoints as legitimate parts of the discussion . Share your purpose(s) from step #2. Invite them to join you in sorting out the situation.
Step 4: Explore Their Story and Yours.
Listen carefully to understand the other person’s perspective on what happened. Ask questions. Recognize the other person’s feelings as legitimate. Paraphrase to make sure to make sure you understand. Figure out how you two got to this place. Share your viewpoint, past experiences, intentions, and feelings. Keep reframing the issue to keep from getting sidetracked into conversation about right and wrong, blame, and accusations.
Step 5: Problem-Solving.
Invent options that address each side’s most important concerns and interests. Set standards for a good solution. Plan for ongoing conversations as the solution moves forward.
While the authors go into much more detail and meander through some stories, these steps provide a solid framework for dealing with difficult conversations.
- Stone, D., Patton, B., & Heen, S. (1999). Difficult conversations: How to discuss what matters most. New York, NY: Viking Penguin.