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Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most

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Whether you're dealing with an under performing employee, disagreeing with your spouse about money or child-rearing, negotiating with a difficult client, or simply saying "no," or "I'm sorry," or "I love you," we attempt or avoid difficult conversation every day. Based on fifteen years of research at the Harvard Negotiation Project, Difficult Conversations walks you through a step-by-step proven approach to having your toughest conversations with less stress and more success.

You will learn:
-- how to start the conversation without defensiveness
-- why what is not said is as important as what is
-- ways of keeping and regaining your balance in the face of attacks and accusations
-- how to decipher the underlying structure of every difficult conversation

Filled with examples from everyday life, Difficult Conversations will help you on your job, at home, or out of the world. It is a book you will turn to again and again for advice, practical skills, and reassurance.

250 pages, Paperback

First published April 1, 1999

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Douglas Stone

21 books62 followers

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Profile Image for Slappy.
7 reviews9 followers
December 4, 2012
Difficult Conversations is a how-to self-help book on negotiating conflict in emotionally-loaded discussions between two people. Authored by members of the Harvard Negotiation Project (which sounds awfully prestigious), the book is lucid and accessible.

A "difficult conversation," according to Stone et al, is "anything you find it hard to talk about":

Sexuality, race, gender, politics, and religion come quickly to mind as difficult topics to discuss, and for many of us they are. But discomfort and awkwardness are not limited to topics on the editorial page. Anytime we feel vulnerable or our self-esteem is implicated, when issues at stake are important and the outcome uncertain, when we care deeply about what is being discussed or about the people with whom we are discussing it, there is potential for us to experience the conversation as difficult.

Per the authors, there are three dimensions to a difficult conversation: practical substance ("the What Happened conversation"), emotional (or inter-personal) subtext, and identity (or inner-personal) subtext. Pointing out something that's both obvious and easy to miss, Stone et al point out that difficult conversations are rarely about what's true so much as they're about what's important, and a lot of trouble can be saved when participants are careful to distinguish between factual claims and value claims.

The What Happened conversation consists of the concrete matter of dispute, such as a friend's drug abuse or a boss' bullying. Stone et al urge readers to keep in mind that facts fit into a story, and disagreements usually stem from different stories rather than conflicting facts. To get past this, it's important to be clear about "what happened" according to you, including the assumptions, values, and past experiences which inform your story; and of course it's just as important to clearly understand the other person's "what happened" story, and where they're coming from. For example, an undocumented migrant laborer and a member of the Romney clan will have very different life-experiences to inform their views on, say, the police. This doesn't mean both are equally right; it just means that if you want to communicate, you've gotta get clear about what you're saying and what the other person's saying.

Because at bottom, difficult conversations are about feelings. This sounds a little hippie-woo-woo, sure, but when you think about it, what could be more obvious than the fact that emotionally-difficult conversations are difficult because of the emotions at their core. If anger is what's getting in the way of a productive exchange, then you've gotta deal with anger (and the brew of other emotions which are almost always simmering underneath it).

And these strong emotions which can make conversations so difficult are connected not only to the other person, but to internal issues of self-image, confidence, and identity. Your correspondent can report that in his own emotional travails, the times when he's gotten pissy and brutal have been only weakly correlated to something shitty the other person did. (When I'm internally okay, it's hard for other people to hurt me.) Incidents of pissy brutality strongly correlate, on the other hand, to my own shame, inadequacy, etc. (When I'm hurting and desperate, I'll find something to be angry about.) Anger is an easier emotion to handle than self-loathing or incompetence; like a nation which goes to war rather than address domestic inequality, getting pissed off is a way to dodge your own spiritual self-improvement.

So those are the three conversations: the "What Happened" conversation, the emotions conversation, and the identity conversation. The three bleed into each other like pages of a damp sketchpad, with "What Happened" ("You tattled on me to the boss") serving as an unconscious metaphor for emotional ("I feel betrayed, hurt, angry, and confused") and identity ("I fear that other people don't value me or take me seriously") subtext. Again, this all sounds really whiny and touchy-feeling, like a new-age inner-child symposium complete with re-birthing ceremonies and 'Song of Myself' creative re-writes. But, again, here's the juice: people fundamentally act based on emotion and self-identity. We are not a species of Spocks; we are a species of McCoys. If you want to ignore emotions, you're free to emulate the hollow machismo of Sly Stallone and the GOP; but if you want to have productive conversations about blood-pressure-raising topics, you've gotta address identity and emotions. And if you want to behave rationally, you've gotta manage your emotions first. You cannot will yourself to emotional balance. This means doing stuff like learning to listen to your own emotions, and thinking hard about which emotions you've learned are appropriate and which are taboo, and thinking about how you've learned to express your emotions.

Strategies for hearing where the other person is coming from, and for difficultly conversing in general, include:

-Shut up and listen. Don't pretend to listen, don't interrupt, don't nod while thinking about how you're going to respond. Listen.

-If you're too keyed-up and can't listen, then say so: "What you're saying is important to me and I want to hear it. But I'm having a hard time concentrating on what you're saying, because I feel really angry and cornered right now. Having put that out there, I'd like to try again to hear what you've got to say."

-Ask questions--real questions, not statements cloaked as rhetorical questions or cross-examination questions designed to show the internal contradiction in what the other person is saying. Genuinely try to understand where the other person is coming from. Paraphrase what you're hearing from them, to make sure you've got it right.

-What's their story? What's at stake for them? What's the cost for them to accept your version of the story?

-Find common ground between your story and theirs by thinking of how a disinterested observer might describe things: "Jesse smokes a pack a day. He does this because cigarettes help him deal with stress and depression, and he's afraid of failing if he tries to quit. His sister Joan hates that he smokes because of smoking's health effects, plus she finds cigarettes gross." Stone et al call this the "Third Story." You can talk about What Happened and how it was perceived and felt by both parties in neutral terms (indeed, that's often what we mean when we refer to "reality": it's just consensus-perception). Doing this gets all the important pieces out in the open without triggering anyone.

-Acknowledge what you hear from them. Sometimes someone really just needs to be hears: "I hear that you were hurt by what I did." Sometimes that's all you need. And by the way, acknowledging ≠ agreeing or ceding your view. Beware either/or dichotomies...

-...Speaking of neither "either" nor "or," you should make it a habit to say "and" instead of "either/or" in difficult conversations: "I didn't finish the assignment by the deadline AND I thought I communicated clearly that I was behind schedule AND I hear you when you say that you didn't find that to be clearly communicated AND part of why I was behind was the other extra work you asked me to do AND I can see how it impacts you for me to miss the deadline AND...etc." As Whitman put it, "Do I contradict myself? Very well, I contradict myself. I am large, I contain multitudes." Don't oversimplify the issue, like politicians do (e.g. "Either you support the war, or you don't love America"). Recognize the smorgasbord of facts, observations, values, interpretations, etc. which inform both you and the other person.

-Disentangle intent from impact: what the other person meant to do ≠ what their effect was. You know what their impact was; you don't know what their intent was.

-At the same time, good intentions don't sanitize bad impact (think of drunk driving). Own your impact.

-Don't refrain from re-framing! Figure out how to frame the issue in a way that's accurate and rings true while also allowing you to work toward a solution. The difference between "I'm a useless scumhole junkie" and "I struggle with addiction" is nothing other than framing, but that difference is the basis of recovery.

-Name the Dynamic: if there's some sort of pattern which keeps the conversation from moving forward--the other person keeps cutting you off, or changing the subject--you can make that pattern itself a topic of the conversation. "I've noticed that several times when I've started to talk about the class schedule, you've interrupted me. Does that seem accurate to you? Can you think of what might be causing that?" The downside of this tactic is that it distracts the conversation (e.g. about the class schedule) into a meta-conversation.

-Work on a solution together, as a joint-exploration. Consider alternatives and compromises, and always try to work on the assumption that the other person is acting in good faith and on honest purposes (recall: their impact ≠ their intentions).

Blame vs. Contribution

Don't talk about blame; talk about contributions to the problem. This is philosophy 101 stuff, but the difference between having caused something vs. being responsible for something is massive. Cause is about the chain of events which lead to some outcome. Responsibility (or blame) is a complex, socially-constructed ethical claim. Think again of a drunk driver who runs over a pedestrian: it's obvious that the driver is responsible (or blameworthy) for the accident. But it's also obvious that the pedestrian contributed to the accident by walking across the street; similarly, the driver's friends contributed by not doing more to keep him from drinking and driving. Talking about blame is useful if the goal of the conversation is figuring out who to punish. But if your goal is to problem-solve, then talking about contribution instead of blame frees you from decreeing a judgment and lets you concentrate on the practical question of, "What can we change to fix this in the future?" Concentrating on blame also prevents the conversation from addressing systems of contribution, by focusing on individual actors: for example, it's much easier to blame Romney or Obama or whoever than it is to think about the complex web of contribution which causes the US government to behave in the way that it does. (That doesn't mean you shouldn't get angry, just that your anger should be directed toward finding solutions rather than scapegoats.)

Also, when you try to raise the issue of contributions during a difficult conversation, own your contributions to the problem first, then explain what you think they contributed. This may take the other person off the defensive and make them more open to hearing about their own contribution, because it signals that you're not trying to cast them as the sole villain. And always make your reasoning explicit: "Here's what I think you contributed, and here's why I think that..."

3 Facts About Yourself Which Are Helpful to Keep In Mind

1. "I will make mistakes."

2. "My intentions are complex."

3. "I have contributed to the problem."

4 Ways to Regain Balance When You Feel a Mel-Gibson-level Freakout Coming On

1. Let go of trying to control their reaction. That's outside your power.

2. Prepare (emotionally, ahead of time) for their response.

3. Imagine yourself in the distant future, to get some perspective on just how important this conversation really is.

4. Take a break if you need it.

4 Liberating Assumptions

1. "It's not my responsibility to make things better; it's my responsibility to try my best.

2. "They have limitations, too."

3. "This conflict is not about who I am."

4. "Letting go doesn't mean I no longer care."

Bonus: "I am the ultimate authority on me: how I feel, what I value, how I'm affected, etc."

3 Purposes In a Conversation (That Work)

1. Learning the other person's story.

2. Expressing your views and feelings.

3. Problem solving together.

4. Convincing the other person it's their fault, thus proving you're an impeccable badass.

Even If You Can't Work It Out

Keep in mind that all this hippie-dippy stuff about listening to the other person's story and exploring feelings and reframing blame into contribution doesn't mean you cave into whatever they want you to do. Contra John McCain, there is a difference between listening to someone you disagree with and consenting to their demands. You can make strong demands on someone without acting like a bully or a blowhard.

If you do end up without an amenable solution, be clear about what you're doing and why. Don't be passive-aggressive; be calm-assertive. "While I think I understand why you want me to stay, I'm still going to leave this company in two weeks. As I've said, the pay is better, and I don't feel confident enough about working conditions here for me to stay on. But I appreciate you taking the time to discuss this with me...etc."
Profile Image for Otis Chandler.
392 reviews114k followers
August 8, 2007
I read this on a recommendation from a friend who gave it to me on a list of business books to read. But it was so much more. It gives you a great framework for thinking through why people have communication issues - whether in personal or professional relationships.

The best piece of advice that stuck with me is to always explain where you are coming from in a discussion. "I did it this way because...". Sometimes we think its obvious and it isn't, and it always helps the conversation when people understand your reasoning.
Profile Image for Jaclyn.
Author 1 book47 followers
February 13, 2015
My husband and I both have ADHD, and that makes for some major communication challenges. This book will help anyone get a better handle on tricky interactions. It should be required reading for anyone who hasn’t done mediation or communication training (I have, but still learned a lot).

Difficult Conversations separates readers from our own narrative and reveals the reasons underlying others’ hot-headed — and often baffling — reactions.

Buyer beware, though: this isn’t the only book you’ll ever need to go happily on your way to communication mastery. Difficult Conversations provides a solid foundation to understand what contributes to communication meltdowns. It won’t help you use the skills in real time or, most important, widen the gap between stimulus and response. To be successful, you’ll need to recognize and inhibit knee-jerk reactions before they leave your mouth. You’ll also need to remember your new communication skills in the moment. This is easier said that done.

As a result, I experienced a lot of frustration as I read this book. Every chapter feels like well-articulated common sense, which makes the difficulty of implementation all the more demoralizing. ADHD adults and other communication-challenged people embarking on this journey will need a partner willing to endure a lot of practice, reflection, and setbacks.

That said, Difficult Conversations still provided an indispensable Step One on the path to better relationships.

(full review at http://adhdhomestead.net/book-review-...)
Profile Image for Mimi.
100 reviews4,141 followers
February 19, 2019
You know that book that you recommend to everyone because you feel so strongly it can help anyone change their life in profound ways? This one is mine. It sat in my book pile for years and I would pick it up and put it down. I wish I had truly read it years earlier and I wish the same for you.

In case you're wondering, yes I have used what I learned in this book on you. If you're lucky I'll use it on you again in the future.
Profile Image for Spicy T AKA Mr. Tea.
522 reviews55 followers
August 18, 2022
What a piece of shit book. Ok, so this was touted as THE book to solve the personnel problems at the food coop I used to work at. My boss, being a corporate minded, new-ager, pop-psychology fan, was told by other managers that if she got the workers to read this book, then problems would practically dissolve. We were asked to read it voluntarily. I was disappointed that I had wasted my time to read it.

There are many things I dislike about it. One is that it speaks in the voice of management--not the voice of workers--who, in my case, it was intended for. This is an insidious way of pushing management speak into the minds of workers in order unconsciously align their thoughts with that of management. Instead of sitting down with us and having an honest fucking discussion, we were constantly reminded that we're part of the problem too, and that we needed to see things from their point of view.

Another issue is that this book bases many of its examples on the use of real power to exploit workers. An example is in order. The set up is that there is a worker who has been asked to stay and work the weekend after being granted time off:

Let's come back to Henry and Rosario. Rosario's the boss. Henry's a valuable employee. If they can't arrive at a solution to the problem of whether Henry will work the weekend, then they each face some choices. Each needs to think about what they will do if they can't arrive at a solution together.

Let's imagine Henry decides to take the weekend off despite Rosario's continued insistence that he stay. Rather than just storming out, Henry should be clear about his feelings, interests, and choices. He might say, "Rosario, I really am sorry. I want very much to be a good employee, and to help out when I can. Normally, I'm happy to work weekends and nights--I hope you've seen that in the past. It's simply a matter of notice. I feel badly about leaving you in the lurch; at the same time, these plans are really important to me, and I gave you plenty of notice and worked hard all week so that I could go away. So I don't like the choice, but given the choice, I'm going to go."

Now Henry needs a second thing; a willingness to accept the consequences. He may return on Monday to find that he no longer has a job. If he can live with that, or indeed prefers that, then going off with his friends makes sense. And as often as not, he may return to find Rosario is both unhappy and more respecting of him and his time. Perhaps she will even apologize, or ask to talk about how to avoid such situations in the future.

If Henry can't live with the possibility of losing his job, then his best choice is probably to work the weekend. He'll feel disappointed that he didn't get to spend time with his friends, but he'll know he handled the conversation skillfully and made a wise choice in the end.
(p.215, 216)

The authors say that if Henry decides to go he can expect 1 of 2 outcomes: an angry boss who has to scramble, while maintaining a job in a potentially hostile environment, or losing his job. His reward? The sense that he "skillfully" handled that situation and made the best choice regardless of the outcome. The problem is that many people need a pay check to survive in wage slavery. Piece of mind isn't going to pay the bills. But we're led to believe that this is all in the best interests of those involved. So instead of the authors recognizing that a) people need leisure, and b) bosses can use situations like the above hypothetical to totally exploit their workers, we get advice to a) keep your head down and do your job or b) lose your job and potentially starve.

It's these simplistic and asinine kinds of examples above that make me want to use this book as toilet paper. If your boss starts telling you to read this book, read it critically--otherwise you might just feel sorry for the suckers who are trying to exploit you.
Profile Image for Dee Arr.
734 reviews90 followers
October 13, 2019
Conversations make up a significant portion of many of our days. Minor or major clashes can lead to issues at work and home, and may ultimately contribute to significant problems in our marriages, jobs, and friendships. Wishing for positive outcomes or for other people to be more reasonable seldom works.

“Difficult Conversations,” written by Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton, and Sheila Heen, offers constructive tips on how to navigate through those encounters. The authors tell us that “…human interactions are complex. Trouble arises from the intersection of styles, behaviors, assumptions, and interests, not because one person is all good and the other all bad.” In a potentially volatile conversation, it is normal to hear what we think is being said without fully understanding the other person, which can lead to defensiveness and blame. At other times, we believe so strongly that what we are saying makes sense that we fail to recognize that what the other person is saying makes sense, too.

Authors Stone/Patton/Heen offer up new paradigms in easily understood explanations. Countless examples of different conversations are offered, some demonstrating how many of us instinctively react followed by demonstrations of how we can turn the discussion around. While ideas like reflective listening are included, the authors target the problems that prevent us from achieving positive interaction, explaining how things like emotions can get in the way and how to deal with them. Reducing blame, managing what is referred to as The Three Conversations, and other helpful tips like reframing are fully explained in such a manner that it seems easy to add these tools to our repertoire and begin using them right away.

The authors, however, recognize that these conversations are not always easy, and they also address those stumbling blocks with multiple examples. In the end, Stone/Patton/Heen can’t prepare us for every possibility to come alone, but if we perform the preparations outlined in the book, we can’t help but continue to improve and become more adept at using the ideas they have shared. If you would like to improve any of your work or personal relationships, this is a fantastic book. Five stars.
Profile Image for Krzysztof.
80 reviews5 followers
November 4, 2021
This one of the best communication books I've read. Although, it might be actually more a psychology book in disguise.

This is not a typical communication/negotiation book, where you receive tactical tips on how to assess the other party's goal, frame the situation, and navigate the conversation to end it up as close to your goal as possible. "Difficult Conversations" is more of a strategic planning book, where you receive tips on how to explore your feelings and motives to stay grounded when emotions and irrationality kick in (and no one in the conversation might even have any specific goals). And once you're good at it, you can help the other party do the same.

I really like how it embraces the human side of having a heated discussion and guides self-discovery. It provides a lot of examples (some of them more believable and realistic, some less) that illustrate the theory and make it more accessible via a variety of situations and contexts of difficult conversations. I find many of the presented concepts thought-provoking and useful, I wish I had read it earlier in my life and applied them more often.

It was an extremely slow read for me. The book is pretty dense and there are so many different examples, stories, and reports accompanying each concept that I had to hit a pause and digest because it was too much at once. Multiple breaks helped the content to sink in, which is not necessarily a bad thing but something to keep in mind when approaching "Difficult Conversations".

P.S. No quick wins here, no acronyms that will help you plan each discussion, no quotable phrases you can use to save your butt when cornered. It's just a ton of practice to do, but at least after reading this book, it will be more deliberate.
Profile Image for Jessica.
20 reviews1 follower
October 1, 2013
I constantly recommend this book to friends, family and colleagues. It was introduced to me in a negotiations class and I learned the most from this book over any other book I was made to read in my graduate studies.

Although everyone would benefit from this book - I especially recommend this book to women for a particular reason. Female characteristics and emotions such as empathy and sensitivity can be great assets in life (don't let men tell you otherwise). However, especially in the male-dominated upper echelons of Corporate North America, it is important that we women know how to set those emotions aside and be equal powers at the discussion table. While many of us will naturally mature and learn from our mentors, this book will give you some tools that will put you way ahead of the game in terms of these critical skills.

The evidence is out there. One of the reasons women are consistently paid less than men is because we avoid or aren't as strong at the difficult conversations that matter most - negotiating our raises, advocating for ourselves and taking credit for our accomplishments.

So by that logic, reading this book will make you more money in your career :)
Profile Image for Mark.
76 reviews20 followers
May 16, 2011
Read at the insistence of my wife. I think she was trying to tell me something. Not sure what it was. Back to nerd fiction!
Profile Image for Kirtida Gautam.
Author 2 books125 followers
November 6, 2015
It's a brilliant book that tells how humans sometimes fail to create impact in conversation because they fail to see the point of view of other people.
Profile Image for Jonathan Newman.
21 reviews24 followers
December 31, 2019
One of the easiest 5 stars I’ve given. Consider this a must-read for life. It might sound overly dramatic, but it’s probably the most immediately and extensively helpful book I’ve ever read. Why? Because of the caliber and practicality with which I feel it’s equipping me and others to face what can bring the vast majority of pain and hardship in our lives: relationships with people. This book changed the life and partly saved the career of someone I know whose leadership impacts a lot of people, and I agree with some friends that this could change the U.S. or any country if it was required reading in middle school and up.

It’s written in such a way that is super-readable and accessible, with no fluff, anticipating virtually every question, exception to the rule, or special scenario of conflict, and it makes it seem very realistic to be reasonable, healthy, and redemptive in conflict with others. There were many case studies

This book is both incredibly grounded in reality as well as paves a pathway to be radically compassionate towards yourself and empathetic of others. I’ve led mini-seminars on conflict resolution, but nothing I’ve heard or been equipped with before holds a candle to this.

Some of my main highlights and takeaways (that I’ve actually experienced) include:
•Disentangling Intent and Impact
•The importance and power of naming emotions: “when . . . I feel . . .”
•Identity: the conversation we’re having with ourselves about what part of my self-conception is threatened (being good, competent, or worthy of love)
-This was a whole new paradigm for me regarding conflicts, and now that I recognize this is at play, it’s helped me to recognize when and how aspects of my identity feel threatened when emotionally triggered
•Reframing difficult conversations as “learning conversations” makes them much more approachable and relational.
•Removing blame as an aspect and discussion contributions from each party instead
•How I talk to friends, coworkers, and even children in my family about conflict has changed for the better. I’m having conversations it never occurred to me to have, and just reading the book is giving a better approach and language to use.
•Much helpful wisdom for special situations in the extensive FAQ section

From reading this, I feel empowered and encouraged to bring more peace, health, intimacy, and effectiveness into all my relationships, and I believe I will continue coming back to consult this book in my lifelong journey of how to do relationships and have hard but needed conversations. I hope many of my friends and family can benefit from this gem too.
Profile Image for Ellie.
1,493 reviews378 followers
May 6, 2018
I don't read many self help books any more and apparently (according to Goodreads) I've already read this one before and rated it 3 stars.

This time it goes up to 4 stars. And I found it so interesting and potentially helpful I replaced my library copy with a tree one as soon as I finished.

I'm not good at having "difficult conversations". I do everything the authors say will happen if you avoid them: complain to my family, friends, co-workers. Anything to avoid confronting the object of my discomfort. And in the past, when I have tried to deal directly with someone, I have either blown up in self-righteous anger or retreated in self-blame.

So this book offers a third path. Lots of concrete suggestions as to how to make these conversations work: avoiding blame (and replacing it with "contributions" that come from both sides); starting from a "third story" (what a mediator might see as having happened); listening with genuine curiosity, and knowing how one's own identity gets triggered in these kinds of conversations.

Lots of interesting scenarios. And answers to questions the authors have fielded in the past.

I want to reread this one and take notes.

Then try it out at work.
Profile Image for Debra.
10 reviews3 followers
July 12, 2007
Although some of the tips may sound a little corny, I think this is a great book for pretty much everyone to read. I definitely noticed a lot of the negative traps I fall into and I want to try some of the new tips suggested in the book.
Profile Image for Laleh.
89 reviews9 followers
May 20, 2018
I cannot recommend this book enough. Clear, precise, to the point, it does exactly what it sets out to do.

Although the book comes too late to save many a conversation I wish I'd never had, but hopefully I'll be able to manage my conversations more skillfully in the future.
Profile Image for Jaclyn Mistry.
232 reviews1 follower
August 3, 2021
Mostly just learned that my avoidant and non-confrontational personality does not help me whatsoever.
Had great talking points though for having these difficult conversations. Can't wait to use them in real life whilst crying lol
Profile Image for Nata.
416 reviews110 followers
January 16, 2022
Mi-a plăcut această carte mult de tot. Poate pentru că ani la rând caut să citesc cărți despre comunicare, despre dificultatea de a îți expune corect ideile, emoțiile, etc. și acum am găsit-o.

Pentru mine a fost foarte utilă. Conține multe situații reale, din viața fiecăruia dintre noi, fie la job, fie acasă, fie cu copiii.

Autorii au inserat conversații defectuoase, apoi, au venit cu modelul/metoda corectă de a aborda acea situație dificilă. Cu exemple clar, cu empatie și multă înțelegere.

Să o citiți și voi.
Profile Image for Kara.
355 reviews
March 3, 2019
This is a true "missing manual". Contains so many effective strategies for getting to the heart of difficult issues and exploring them more collaboratively.

I've noticed that some books in communication have more manipulative approaches for "influencing others", so I like how this one focuses on genuinely trying to understand the other person and how to express yourself in a way that is more productive.

Overall, very insightful. Definitely will be able to use some of these tips on a daily basis.
Profile Image for Adam Wiggins.
251 reviews97 followers
June 19, 2016
Solid advice, illustrated with copious examples, on how to tackle emotionally-charged conversations in the workplace, romantic life, and family life.

As always, examples are worth a thousand words of exposition. The examples in this book are extremely well-done -- in fact, I suspect if they were extracted to stand on their own without any of the accompanying explanation, the book's thesis still would have come through quite clearly.

My takeaways:

Break down your thoughts (and the conversation) into three parts: what happened, feelings, and identity. 1. What does each involved part think occurred? 2. How does each party feel about it? 3. What does the issue(s) at hand say about who you are as a person?

Approach conversations with the intent to listen and learn, not to deliver a message. Don't issue judgements or speculate on other people's motivations and intentions. Think in terms of contribution, not blame or fault. Try to fully probe and untangle your own thoughts and feelings on a situation before entering a conversation with the other involved party.
30 reviews2 followers
September 12, 2016
A book that makes a simple practice needlessly complicated, and then tries to put order to that complication.

The authors clearly declare in the beginning of the book, that some conversations are just hard and no matter what you do, they'll always be. This book will not provide you with a magic trick that makes them easy.

If you don't think you have a problem with conducting conversations reading this book will not do you any good, it's not one of those books that you read to get "even better".

Probably I am a skilled conversationalist, and some other people might find it useful? I don't think so too, this is because, even if you really do need help in that regard, the conversation structure that the book suggests is rather complicated, if you attempt to "apply" what the book tells you to, or completely change the way you look at conversations you will be lost, you might end up in more awkward conversations that before. I think it will be an impossible task to act upon this book to conduct conversations effortlessly.
Profile Image for Gareth Davies.
65 reviews7 followers
April 15, 2018
A very challenging read, in a good way. There's so much to take in and learn from this book if you are already a fairly competent communicator this will take you to the next level if you can absorb and take on board the wisdom contained within.

It deals with the hardest area for us as humans to deal with, conflict, disagreements, emotions and difficult conversations in a very structured way with checklists, sample conversations and strategies to implement the tactics.

It's extremely actionable and will change everything about the way you interact at work, in your relationships, with your children and every other interaction in between.

Powerful stuff.
Profile Image for Tristan.
88 reviews7 followers
October 24, 2016
Below are my reading notes from this useful book. I've tried to distill what I thought was their best advice. Hopefully it is of use to anyone who doesn't have the time to read the full book.

“When someone says something with which you disagree, ask them how they know that it’s true. Often the reasoning or a factual premise, rather than just the conclusion, is where the difference lies.” – paraphrasing Peter Boghossian

Overall Attitude:

• Rather than assuming that you absolutely need to convince a person of a position, come to every conversation with the attitude of intending to engage in a mutual learning experience. This involves 3 main aspects (that do not necessarily have to be followed in the listed order):
i. Understand what has happened from the other person’s point of view;
ii. Explain your point of view sufficiently for the other person to understand your conclusion and the reasons behind that conclusion. Sharing reasons is important because often we argue over what we think (ie. our conclusions) whereas the issue and resolution lies with why we think what we think (ie. the premises on which our conclusion is based); [Where appropriate, share, understand and express some appreciation for the other person’s feelings before delving into who contributed to the problem or trying to find solutions to the problem]
iii. Work together to figure out a way to manage the problem. Don’t work against the other side.

Note: If the purpose of your conversation is not to support learning, sharing and problem-solving, check your motives for conversing to ensure that you do are not engaged in some kind of “I told you so” mentality. The purpose of a conversation should be mutual understanding – although not necessarily mutual agreement – above all else.

Conveying your point of view:

• When starting a difficult conversation, a framework to follow for sufficiently conveying your point of view is:
i. State what the other person did (without attaching judgment over the goodness or badness of their actions).
ii. Say what the impact was on you (without attaching intent to their actions; ie. focus on your emotional response, isolated from any presumed intent on their behalf)
- Simple tip: When discussing the impact their actions had, start with “I feel…” to avoid the trap of making a judgment about their intentions while keeping the impact framed around your subjective experience.
iii. If you must assign intentions to the other person to fully engage in the issue, make your assumptions about their intentions clear and take care to label such assumptions as a hypothesis to be checked rather than as an assertion of truth.
• Make sure that if you have specific expectations – especially if they are not completely obvious – about how something should be done, that they are made explicit. Sometimes people get into arguments over an outcome without realizing that the problem lies in assumptions about expectations.

Key: Don’t make assumptions about the other side’s intentions, and if you make the assumptions, make them clear but open to revision.

Listening to their point of view:

• Acknowledge feelings behind arguments and accusations before dealing with the arguments and accusations (this is critical, because people often don’t feel that they’ve been listened to until the feelings explicit or implicit to their story have been acknowledged. This is especially important where we may feel the need to defend our actions or want to tell the other side that they should feel a different way).
- Telling the other side that they should feel a different way is almost always a bad idea because it invalidates the emotions they do in fact feel.
• Ask questions and paraphrase their point of view if anything is unclear to you.

Assessing the problem:

• After both sides have been understood and feelings have been acknowledged, frame the problem to be solved as a difference between stories of what happened or as a difference of what the problem is perceived to be. Do not focus on the problem solely from your point of view.
- Incorporate as many aspects of the other side’s story as possible (within reason) into the assessment of the problem and possible solutions. [It helps to preface the problem with a brief summation of their side of the story. This could be as simple as saying, “It sounds like you’re unhappy with how I’ve behaved. I have been having a bit of trouble with some things as well. [discuss problem]”]
• Avoid the temptation to cast the other person as part of the problem. Invite them to help with problem solving without suggesting that they are naïve, callous, manipulative etc.

Avoid placing blame:

• Acknowledge joint contribution: ie. how did both sides' actions contribute to the problem?
- Always search for a way that you contributed to the problem, even if it seems like the other person is deserving of 100% of the blame.
- To ease the other side’s defensiveness, bring up your contribution to the problem early on.
• Focusing on how you feel about the impact of someone’s actions can help reduce the impulse to blame someone (and is also more productive than placing blame).

Dealing with feelings:

• “Your feelings need not be rational to be expressed. Thinking that you shouldn’t feel as you do will rarely change the fact that you do.”
- If uncomfortable with feelings, preface their introduction with the fact that you realize they are not rational. This helps disarm the other side when you have strong emotions.
• Acknowledge other people’s feelings before moving on to the specifics about what happened/clarifying your own intentions/problem solving. This is important.
- Pay attention because people may express their feelings implicitly, and then when you move on to dealing with the problem they may be unsatisfied and keep dwelling in implicit unacknowledged emotion. [For example, a wife may say something about a husband’s behaviour in a manner suggesting that she is upset, but not explicitly state her feelings. And he may say that he will correct his behaviour, but fail to acknowledge the feelings hidden within her statement.]
- If the other side expresses feelings, the conversation will move better if they can tell that what they’ve said made an impression, their feelings matter, and you are working to understand them.
• Do not suggest a course of action to fix feelings without first acknowledging that the feelings exist (see husband-wife example immediately above). Realize that you cannot control a person’s emotional reaction (neither can they) but you can acknowledge it.

Dealing with intentions:

• Be open to thinking hard about your own intentions (whether your intentions relate to behaviour-at-issue, or the reason behind having the conversation). The other side will receive a positive message through witnessing you seriously considering your own intentions, because it shows that you are willing to self-reflect for someone who matters.
• If you feel that the reason for having a conversation at a given moment is not obvious (for instance, if you are having a strange emotional reaction to something ongoing or that was done in the past), it may be worthwhile to clarify intentions behind having the conversation. But doing this at the beginning of the conversation may not be best as you don’t yet understand the other side’s story.

Miscellaneous Tips:

• Reframe truth as subjective perceptions. Reframe blame as mutual contribution. Reframe accusations and malicious intent as personal subjective feelings.
• If the other person is not persuaded or is puzzled by your version of events, ask them how they see it differently (don’t ask for where they agree because then they may shy away from sharing doubts or sides of their story crucial to disagreement).
• When revisiting conversations that have previously gone poorly, it is okay to acknowledge that the topic is difficult and has caused problems in the past, while stating that it is important to you that a better understanding is made.
• The only good reason to ask a question in a difficult conversation is to learn. If you have a statement to make, be straightforward rather than framing it as a question that could be interpreted as passive aggressive.
- “Never dress up an assertion as a question.” Make them statements about what you would like done or how you feel.
• Never assume that you know you are right, but do assume that the other person may have some piece of knowledge or different mode of perception that could explain the reason for their point of view.
• Be as specific as possible with what happened that has contributed to the problem.
• Deliver any bad news up front.
• Avoid making demands, instead inviting explorations of whether a request is fair. Try replacing “I think I deserve/I want…” with “I wonder if it would make sense/I’d like to explore whether [request[ makes sense. From my point of view, I think [request should be satisfied]. [present reasoning]. I wonder how you see it?”

Before giving up on conversation, ask the person what they would have to learn to persuade them to change or reconsider their view. At least if they say nothing, then you know that you may be wasting your effort.
Profile Image for Rick Sam.
400 reviews95 followers
July 22, 2022

Growing up in Tamil Nadu, I wish many things were taught to us. In Tamil Nadu, I wish -- Communication & Political Science are taken seriously.

It's sad, to notice lack of this skill.
Even among religious Leaders among, Hinduism, Islam, Christianity in Tamil Nadu.

Being Cognizant & Practitioner, would enable them to get careers in Professional mediating, conflict resolution, which is vital in every society.

"Imagine, how you'd be able to stop or decrease 7/10" conflicts in the World?

Sadly - we are not exposed to many things, Conflict-Resolution is a life-long skill

Whenever I meet people, I am always looking to learn something. Regardless of age, we can always learn something, includes younger people. Once, I met an older American of english-ancestry descent, who suggested this.

How to Manage Difficult Conversation?

Panchayat Yapadi Pananum {Tamil}

So, How to do it?

1. Stick with, “I” statements

2. Never Blame, be any relationship, Father, Mother, Sibling, Loved Ones

3. Blame usually doesn’t resolve

4. Express, How you feel (90%), giving space to how the other person feels

5. Listening means, giving all your attention, drop everything you do

6. Assume responsible for your contribution

Recall, the other person, has to FEEL heard, not, robotic "I understand"

Can you tell the difference?

Paechu {Tamil}

1. Hear their story, never assume intention (we can’t read anyone’s mind)

2. Try restating, what the other person said, bringing out feelings and talk

3. You are most probably wrong in figuring out intention (100%)

4. Nobody can read another person's mind.

5. Do you listen to truly understand?

Idhu vachu ena panalam {Tamil}:

1. Workplace conversation

2. Family conversation

3. Friends

4. Conflict among Couples

5. Political Conflict

I imagine LTTE conflict, and many wars around the Globe.

Deus Vult,
Profile Image for Andreea.
44 reviews17 followers
July 24, 2014
This books has a lot of examples and while reading through them it’s impossible not to recognise a situation in which you have been. It’s amazing how much we speak and how bad we are at conversations.

A conversation is affected by the image people have about themselves. People react when a conversation affects their identity. So the way one handles conversations is determined by how much one knows himself.

One of the best advices is to express your feelings. Once you manage to do that during a conversation, than you are able to listen better to the other person. Also, trying to control somebody else’s feelings is not the way to go. All you can do in a difficult conversation is showing understanding of the situation.

The book offers quite sensible advice on how to prepare, manage or avoid a difficult conversation (yes, because some conversations are not worth having). It won’t give you a magic trick that will solve all your issues, but a framework you can apply when you feel unprepared to discuss certain issues.
Profile Image for Philipp.
632 reviews188 followers
June 10, 2014
A good guide to 'difficult conversations' with boss/spouse/people, i.e., clashing stories, themes that endanger your self-image, and emotions, it contains some valuable advice on how to incorporate everyone's and your own feelings in a mature way during a conversation.

But: For the love of all that is holy, do not follow the advice contained in this book with children. I had teachers who went to university in the 'progressive' 70s, so what they talked about all day is your feelings and their feelings and it's all very annoying when you just want to set things on fire. The authors circumvent the issue by pretending that children don't exist. A note like 'btw, this stuff doesn't work with children' would have helped.
Profile Image for Suzy .
199 reviews14 followers
February 26, 2012
I am very glad that I read this book, and I feel sure that it will have a positive impact on all difficult conversations I have from here on out. I tend to be a conflict avoider who puts off (or stuffs) difficult conversations, but now I feel that I don't necessarily have to view difficult conversations as conflict. In many difficult conversations I have had in the past, I have felt variously that the other people are trying to win by being loud, emotional, interruptive or verbally manipulative. Usually, I just want my point of view to be heard and considered but feel that the other person behaves as if we are in a contest, that they are playing a game to win, while I am not even playing. Finally, I sometimes feel that strong emotions--hurt feelings, anger, frustration--are boiling up inside me to the point that controlling them/hiding them is taking all my energy. This book deals with all these by offering a structured way of viewing, initiating and navigating difficult conversations, whether with colleagues, bosses, friends, loved ones, etc.

The first point in the book is that difficult conversations have three parts or aspects: What Happened, Feelings and Identity. No matter which part of the conversation you are focused on, the important thing is to come into the conversation in a learning mode. The authors stress that this is not a matter of certain techniques such as making eye contact or repeating what is heard, but of genuinely coming to learn the other person's point of view and coming with the humble stance that you may not be right or completely blameless, though the authors hasten to make the point that this is not relativism but an optimal stance for understanding. Just as importantly, one must come ready to express her own thoughts and feelings.

Beginning the conversation from the "third story"--not your story, not theirs, but the POV that might be taken by a mediator or reporter was the next key point. It is a neutral stance that effectively invites the other person to relax and join the exploration of both sides of the conflict.

Reframing your notion of "blame" as "contribution" seems like another powerful tool. Come to the conversation to explore everyone's contributions to the problem, not to place blame. I can definitely see how this could be disarming.

Discussing feelings openly, without BEING emotional was another key point, though crying can be okay, depending on the situation.

The identity aspect of the conversation was eye-opening for me as well. Sometimes one difficulty in conversations is that identities are threatened. One helpful suggestion was that some of us need to work on blurring the rigid lines with which we define our selves and not think of ourselves in such black and white terms, such as Good and Bad, Industrious and Lazy, Smart and Stupid, etc. Less rigid identities are not as easily threatened because they have more give. The authors spend some time in the book discussing helpful ways to reframe identities built on past experiences.

Another important section addresses how to decide whether or not to have the difficult conversation in the first place. A little pre-thinking about aim and outcome and personal contribution are recommended.
Finally, the book ends with a handy Guide for thinking through a conversation and an excellent FAQs section that I got a lot out of.

I have already noticed myself practicing the book's recommendations (or noticing where I should have) in small spats. What i notice is the difference it makes inside ME: I don't end up as flattened, and I feel a stronger sense of self. The real test of a genuine "Difficult Conversation" has yet to come, but if it does, I have no doubt I--and the other person, I hope--will benefit from this training.
Profile Image for Kinga.
658 reviews24 followers
September 4, 2023
Some of the points discussed in this book were quite interesting, and the examples showed that they can be applied in all aspects of our lives, really, be it at our job, at home or even with our friends.

When there is a heated situation or discussion it’s always good to spend a minute or two trying to see it from the other person’s perspective, and then move the discussion as if you were observing it from a third party’s point of view. And the chapter about how to move from blame to contribution was also interesting, but my favourite part might’ve been the very end, where even the author admitted that sometimes no matter how hard we try, the best solution might be to give up. If the other person is refusing to listen and it’s clear they just want a discussion to be able to fight with you, then there’s nothing we can do about that except leave them alone.
Profile Image for Fernando Paladini.
Author 2 books11 followers
August 24, 2023
Livro repetitivo, mas MUITO BOM. Coloco ele no meu hall de melhores livros de comunicação e relacionamento interpessoal, junto ao "Como fazer amigos e influenciar pessoas", de Dale Carnegie.

Muitos e muitos aprendizados sobre como evitar, lidar e/ou resolver conversas difíceis. Esse tipo de conversa sempre vai existir em nossa vida, e é muito interessante descobrir técnicas e formas de resolver conflitos ou tirar maior proveito dessas conversas, chegando na melhor solução para ambos os lados.
Profile Image for Stacey.
631 reviews
June 12, 2017
In my opinion, this is a must-read for everyone. I've learned so much already and have been flying through it, it's that easy to read.

A big-picture look at all kinds of difficult conversations, it shares a template for preparing for, reframing, thinking clearly about, and having difficult conversations. What's a difficult conversation? Any that you really don't want to have. One that makes you anxious or upset.

It won't give you a template for negotiating a raise, for example, but it gives you everything you need to frame that conversation.

Everything resonates, and how we behave is presented as how we ALL behave, which was kind of eye-opening for me. I'm not much worse than everyone else in how I feel and think about touchy subjects and difficult relationships...

It asks tough questions, but if you take the time to dig deep and find the answers, you'll be much more prepared for difficult conversations. And your relationships will benefit. Including your relationship with yourself.

Each Story: Perception, Feelings, Identity - is an important part about the conversation, but the one I feel might be most impactful is the Identity story. This section discusses how to balance yourself so things others might say don't rock your sense of who you are. I didn't even know this was a part of why I dread certain conversations, but it fits.

I haven't finished it yet. I already know I'm going to buy this book and keep it as a reference.
Profile Image for Erik Nygren.
59 reviews1 follower
May 24, 2018
This took me ages to get through, I did not find it to be a very gripping read. However, this is not to say I didn’t take lots away from reading it. I was quite blown away by how this book manages to deconstruct the meta-structure of any tough dialogue, and the widely applicable tools it gives you for keeping conversations constructive and on track.

I believe this book gives you a good (with some training) approach for a lot of awkward interpersonal challenges that life throws at you. I was surprised by how much of this book is centered around one’s self, and ego; but it made more sense the further I got into the read. Dealing with any conflict starts with an open mindedness to the fact that your account of certain events may not hold the ultimate truth, and the ability to address that fact in a debate without triggering self-identity related defensiveness is not something the majority of us master naturally.

Useful read, but my tip would be to read the occasional chapter on the side along with another “main” book. Just to soak it all up and not lose out on the useful stuff due to boredom.
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