By Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton, and Sheila Heen, Penguin Books, November 2, 2010, 978-1101496763

Difficult Conversations seem to happen every day. It’s hard to communicate about complex subjects even if it isn’t strictly negotiation. We are always talking through our emotions. When we don’t admit this, we make the conversations even more difficult.

This book is an excellent guide to the process of breaking apart your feelings from the process and content of communication. It doesn’t talk about cognitive behavioral therapy, but the methods are similar. They have a nice checklist [k3700] that can be used to prepare for a difficult conversation.

The book goes to the edge of being pedantic, but it has to. These techniques are difficult to grasp, especially if you haven’t had other psychological training. The examples are good, some of them are real. They make the point that even if people don’t cooperate with you, you can still go into conversations prepared and knowing that you are doing your best. You can’t change people, but you can change yourself.

The second edition has some advice on email, which can create more problems. There’s a long FAQ chapter that answers ten common questions. Otherwise, it’s identical to the first edition, which was extremely well written.

[k127] How to explain it all? Just this: people are people.

We have perceptions and thoughts and feelings, and we work and play with other human beings who have their own perceptions, thoughts, and feelings:

[k138] We don’t outgrow difficult conversations or get promoted past them.

[k140] In fact, we can make a reasonable argument that engaging (well) in difficult conversations is a sign of health in a relationship.

[k158] With everyone taking for granted that their own view is right, and readily assuming that others’ opposition is self-interested, progress quickly grinds to a halt.

[k344] An approach that is helpful to your peace of mind, whether or not others join in.

[k346] We will show you how to turn the damaging battle of warring messages into the more constructive approach we call a learning conversation.

[k355] In fact, the people we’ve worked with, who have learned new approaches to dealing with their most challenging conversations, report less anxiety and greater effectiveness in all of their conversations.

[k364] But we have discovered that, regardless of context, the things that make difficult conversations difficult, and the errors in thinking and acting that compound those difficulties, are the same.

[k373] But even if you are not yet ready to take on an actual conversation, this book can help you sort through your feelings and assist you as you find your way to a healthier place.

[k378] So long as you focus only on what to do differently in difficult conversations, you will fail to break new ground.

[k390] For if we are fragile, we are also remarkably resilient.

[k420] Surprisingly, despite what appear to be infinite variations, all difficult conversations share a common structure.

[k435] You’re distracted by all that’s going on inside. You’re uncertain about what’s okay to share, and what’s better left unsaid.

[k444] Most difficult conversations involve disagreement about what has happened or what should happen.

[k447] Every difficult conversation also asks and answers questions about feelings.

[k452] We conduct an internal debate over whether this means we are competent or incompetent, a good person or bad, worthy of love or unlovable.

[k461] We will still run into situations where untangling “what happened” is more complicated than we initially suspect.

[k465] Instead of working to manage our feelings constructively, we either try to hide them or let loose in ways that we later regret.

[k479] The number of things I am right about would fill a book.

There’s only one hitch: I am not right.

[k496] The error we make in the realm of intentions is simple but profound : we assume we know the intentions of others when we don’t. Worse still, when we are unsure about someone’s intentions, we too often decide they are bad.

[k519] When competent, sensible people do something stupid, the smartest move is to try to figure out, first, what kept them from seeing it coming and, second, how to prevent the problem from happening again.

[k531] Bringing up feelings can also be scary or uncomfortable, and can make us feel vulnerable.

[k539] Feelings are not some noisy byproduct of engaging in difficult talk, they are an integral part of the conflict.

[k547] Understanding feelings, talking about feelings, managing feelings – these are among the greatest challenges of being human.

[k582] Like dealing with feelings, grappling with the Identity Conversation gets easier with the development of certain skills.

[k595] Changing our stance means inviting the other person into the conversation with us, to help us figure things out.

[k623] We disagree with people all the time, and often no one cares very much.

But other times, we care a lot.

[k627] When disagreement occurs, arguing may seem natural, even reasonable. But it’s not helpful.

[k660] This raises an interesting question: Why is it always the other person who is naive or selfish or irrational or controlling?

[k675] Arguing inhibits our ability to learn how the other person sees the world.

[k683] This is because people almost never change without first feeling understood.

[k701] Our stories are built in often unconscious but systematic ways.

[k752] But rather than assuming we already know everything we need to, we should assume that there is important information we don’t have access to.

[k791] There’s nothing wrong with having these rules. In fact, we need them to order our lives. But when you find yourself in conflict, it helps to make your rules explicit and to encourage the other person to do the same.

[k804] Our colleague Roger Fisher captured this phenomenon in a wry reflection on his days as a litigator : “I sometimes failed to persuade the court that I was right, but I never failed to persuade myself!”

[k808] There’s only one way to come to understand the other person’s story, and that’s by being curious.

[k811] Certainty locks us out of their story; curiosity lets us in.

[k828] One way to shift your stance from the easy certainty of feeling that you’ve thought about this from every possible angle is to get curious about what you don’t know about yourself.

[k846] Part of the stress of staying curious can be relieved by adopting what we call the “And Stance.”

[k851] Don’t choose between the stories; embrace both.

[k853] The mere act of understanding someone else’s story doesn’t require you to give up your own.

[k883] Even when it seems the dispute is about what’s true, you may find that being the one who’s right doesn’t get you very far.

[k903] “And” helps you to be curious and clear.

[k957] When we’ve been hurt by someone else’s behavior, we assume the worst.

[k971] What’s ironic – and all too human – about our tendency to attribute bad intentions to others is how differently we treat ourselves.

[k982] Perhaps the biggest danger of assuming the other person had bad intentions is that we easily jump from “they had bad intentions” to “they are a bad person.”

[k1139] Blame is a prominent issue in many difficult conversations.

[k1214] As a rule, when things go wrong in human relationships, everyone has contributed in some important way.

[k1234] After a car accident, for example, an automaker expecting to be sued may resist making safety improvements for fear it will seem an admission that the company should have done something before the accident.

“Truth commissions” often are created because of this trade-off between assigning blame and gaining an understanding of what really happened. A truth commission offers clemency in return for honesty. In South Africa, for example, it is unlikely that so much would now be known about past abuses under the apartheid system if criminal investigations and trials had been the only means of discovery.

[k1329] One of the most common contributions to a problem, and one of the easiest to overlook, is the simple act of avoiding.

[k1345] You contribute by being uninterested, unpredictable, short-tempered, judgmental, punitive, hypersensitive, argumentative, or unfriendly.

[k1379] The problem is that things don’t change, because each is waiting for the other to change.

[k1383] People are just different. If we hope to stay together over the long haul, we will sometimes have to compromise our preferences and meet in the middle.

[k1405] Pretend you are the other person and answer the question in the first person, using pronouns such as I, me, and my.

[k1453] When exploring a contribution system, consider whether other players may be contributing something important.

[k1509] Feelings like passion and pride, silliness and warmth, and even jealousy, disappointment, and anger let us know that we are fully alive.

[k1511] Our failure to acknowledge and discuss feelings derails a startling number of difficult conversations.

[k1530] Solving problems seems easier than talking about emotions.

[k1573] Unexpressed feelings can block the ability to listen.

[k1596] When it comes to understanding our own emotions, where most of us are is lost.

[k1645] The implicit rule you are following is that you should put other people’s happiness before your own.

[k1647] Their anger is no better or worse than yours.

[k1668] In many situations, we are blinded to the complexity of our feelings by one strong feeling that trumps all the others.

[k1734] Finding the feelings that are lurking around and under angry attributions and judgments is a key step in bringing feelings into a conversation effectively.

[k1768] Indeed, until we have had a conversation with the other person, we can only hypothesize.

[k1785] Too often we confuse being emotional with expressing emotions clearly. They are different.

[k1813] Premature evaluation of whether feelings are legitimate will undermine their expression and, ultimately, the relationship.

[k1845] If you begin instead with, “ When you disagree with me about child-rearing in front of the kids, I feel betrayed, and also worried about the message it sends to them,” your spouse cannot argue with how you feel.

[k1850] Acknowledgment is a step that simply cannot be skipped.

[k1893] Our anxiety results not just from having to face the other person, but from having to face ourselves.

[k1898] But three identity issues seem particularly common, and often underlie what concerns us most during difficult conversations: Am I competent? Am I a good person? Am I worthy of love?

[k1933] The primary peril of all-or-nothing thinking is that it leaves our identity extremely unstable, making us hypersensitive to feedback.

[k1964] Often during a difficult conversation we are not even aware that our identity is implicated.

[k2058] The question is not whether you will get knocked over. You will. The real question is whether you are able to get back on your feet and keep the conversation moving in a productive direction.

[k2075] But trying to smooth over or stifle the other person’s reaction will make things worse, not better.

[k2179] Sometimes what’s difficult about the situation has a whole lot more to do with what’s going on inside you than what’s going on between you and the other person.

[k2195] As you sort out your feelings or identify your contribution to a situation it may become clear that what’s called for is not a conversation about the interaction, but a change in your behavior. Sometimes actions are better than words.

[k2294] If you’re going to talk, talk. Really talk. And if you’re really going to talk, you can’t do it on the fly. You have to plan a time to talk.

[k2406] What you say at the outset can put you squarely on the road toward understanding and problem-solving.

[k2420] We describe the problem from our own perspective and, in doing so, trigger just the kinds of reactions we hope to avoid.

[k2431] By leaving their story out, we implicitly set up a trade-off between their version of events and our version, between our feelings and theirs.

[k2436] In addition to your story and the other person’s story, every difficult conversation includes an invisible Third Story. The Third Story is the one a keen observer would tell, someone with no stake in your particular problem.

[k2472] Importantly, you don’t have to know what the other person’s story entails to include it in initiating the conversation this way.

[k2493] Stepping out of your story doesn’t mean giving up your point of view. Your purpose in opening the conversation is to invite the other person into a joint exploration. In the course of that exploration you’ll spend time in each side’s perspective, and then come back to adjust your own views based on what you’ve learned and what you’ve shared.

[k2611] Once a description of the problem is on the table, and your purposes are clear, then you will need to spend time exploring the Three Conversations from each of your perspectives.

[k2733] Finding and paying attention to your own internal voice – what you’re thinking but not saying – is the crucial first step in overcoming the biggest barrier to inauthentic listening.

[k2927] Unless they get the acknowledgment they need, feelings will cause trouble in the conversation – like a kid desperate for attention, positive or negative.

[k2951] Too often in difficult conversations and with the best of intentions, we skip right to problem-solving without acknowledging, and the loss is significant.

[k2994] To communicate with clarity and power, you must first negotiate yourself into a place where you truly believe that what you want to express is worthy of expression – a belief that your views and feelings are as important as anyone else’s. Period.

[k3031] When we fail to share what’s most important to us, we detach ourselves from others and damage our relationships.

[k3051] But being entitled doesn’t mean you’re obligated. That turns entitlement into another way to beat yourself up: “I should be saying what’s on my mind, but I’m too afraid. I can’t do anything right!”

[k3112] This is a common and understandable fantasy – our ideal mate or perfect colleague should be able to read our mind and meet our needs without our having to ask. Unfortunately, such people don’t exist.

[k3132] You can avoid oversimplifying by using the Me-Me And. The And Stance recognizes that each of various perceptions, feelings, and assumptions is important to talk about. This is true of the other person’s perceptions and your perceptions, the other person’s feelings and yours. It’s also true of the various perceptions, feelings, and assumptions that are going on just inside you. The “and” in this case is connecting two aspects of what you think or feel. And though complex, it’s both clear and accurate.

[k3155] But presenting your story as the truth – which creates resentment, defensiveness, and leads to arguments – is a wholly avoidable disaster.

[k3157] When you’re arguing about a favorite movie or food or sports hero, sharing judgment as the truth is fine. But in difficult conversations it doesn’t wash.

[k3173] The first step toward clarity, then, is to share your conclusions and opinions as your conclusions and opinions and not as the truth. The second step is to share what’s beneath your conclusions – the information you have and how you have interpreted it.

[k3194] “Always” and “never” also make it harder – rather than easier – for the other person to consider changing their behavior.

[k3228] If you think it or feel it, you are entitled to say it, and no one can legitimately contradict you. You only get in trouble if you try to assert what you are not the final authority on – who is right, who intended what, what happened.

[k3248] Reframing means taking the essence of what the other person says and “translating it” into concepts that are more helpful – specifically, concepts from the Three Conversations framework.

[k3318] When the other person becomes highly emotional, listen and acknowledge.

[k3359] At times like these, naming the dynamic can help. You put on the table as a topic for discussion what you see happening in the conversation itself. In a sense, you are acting as your own “conversation doctor,” diagnosing the problem and prescribing a way back to health.

[k3377] So naming the dynamic is probably best thought of as something to try when nothing else has worked.

[k3390] You need to persuade them no more and no less than they need to persuade you. Thus, you always have the option to turn the tables, to invite them to persuade you and insist that they do.

[k3415] Being open to persuasion is a powerful stance to have. It allows you to be honest and firm about your current views, and to listen to theirs.

[k3432] Many difficult situations are amenable to creative solutions that meet most of everyone’s needs, but which may not be obvious and may take some effort to find.

[k3453] Occasional frustration is the price of admission.

[k3616] The best way to handle confusion around impact and intent isn’t to defend yourself. First, you have to acknowledge the other person’s feelings, and only then should you try to clarify what your intentions were.

NOTE: This particular scenario is long and helpful. I normally skip over examples like this, and when I didn’t, it was good. It seems pedantic to go through each step. It’s not. It’s helpful.

[k3663] Step Five: Problem-Solving

NOTE: This is the last step in the example conversation. After the foundation has been built.

[k3700] A Difficult Conversations CheckList

NOTE: I just took the bullet points. There are helpful descriptions in the full text.

Step 1: Prepare by Walking Through the Three Conversations

  1. Sort out What Happened.
  2. Understand Emotions.
  3. Ground Your Identity.

Step 2: Check Your Purposes and Decide Whether to Raise the Issue

Step 3: Start from the Third Story

Step 4: Explore Their Story and Yours

  • Listen to understand their perspective on what happened.
  • Share your own viewpoint, your past experiences, intentions, feelings.
  • Reframe, reframe, reframe to keep on track.

Step 5: Problem-Solving

NOTE: The rest of this text is the update to the first edition

[k3730] Ten Questions People Ask About Difficult Conversations

[k3745] Some people who read Difficult Conversations wonder if we’re arguing that facts are irrelevant or that all views are equally reasonable.

[k3754] To make conversations productive, especially in a context of strong emotion, high stakes, and complex perceptions, a critical first step is to distinguish clearly between facts on the one hand, and opinions, assumptions, values, interests, predictions, and judgments on the other. That your five-year-old threw his dinner on the floor is a fact; whether and how he should be disciplined is a judgment.

[k3764] We often feel certain of memories that are in fact erroneous.

[k3786] So inquire into their view looking for the sense rather than the nonsense in it.

NOTE: Disconfirm, disconfirm, disconfirm!

[k3796] Whether or not some truths are absolute, as human beings our ability to perceive such truths is limited

[k3832] With a passionate viewpoint comes the responsibility to be informed about the issues involved and to listen to how people with a different point of view see them. Not necessarily with the goal of agreeing or even of finding common ground. But at least with the goal of understanding how your neighbor sees it. Not the media, not the Internet or the blogosphere, not bumper stickers and placards, but your neighbor, whether across the street or across the country.

[k3875] Giving in rewards bad behavior, and what gets rewarded gets repeated.

[k3960] Moreover, if you define success by what you can get others to do, you cede to them control of the outcome and set yourself up for aggravation. Your goal should be to do the best you can to fuel a productive interchange and to make sure as best you can that your own actions aren’t part of the problem and somehow contributing to the other’s reactions.

[k4049] Remember joint contribution. The danger in acknowledging that some people are more difficult than others is that we let ourselves off the hook.

[k4070] Surveys suggest that a great majority of bosses believe their employees view them as effective, competent, and caring, yet only a minority of employees report that they view their bosses in so positive a light.

[k4099] Listen! Paradoxically, there is also considerable persuasion power in inquiry and listening.

[k4332] Bottom line: You can’t resolve an e-mail conflict with e-mail.

[k4362] As a medium for difficult conversations, the phone is less perilous than e-mail, but perilous still.

[k4408] Finally, how you raise the matter of feelings is critical. Talking about emotions by being emotional – crying, screaming, pouting, eye-rolling, or foot stomping – will often make you appear weak, out-of-control, or unprofessional.

NOTE: There are lots of very explicit do’s and dont’s in the book. I think this is helpful, especially when you are working in a different culture. Some things may not be obvious to you.

[k4417] After all, a “corporate culture” is actually made up of many individual relationships, and each relationship you change improves the overall culture.

[k4642] Giving up requires you to have a difficult conversation with yourself about making a healthy choice – for yourself and those you love – and to be able to forgive yourself. That may be the toughest conversation of all, but one well worth having.