Review of Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most

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People learn to communicate from their parents and the adults and other children around them, for better or worse. Professionally, it is important for people to have positive communication styles and habits, and it is important for leaders and managers to understand the value of the difficult conversation—a conversation based on delivering criticism or bad news, or broaching a topic that can be sensitive or easily misunderstood because of emotional triggers tied to it. The authors Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton, Sheila Heen, and Roger Fisher want to help readers learn how to think about, practice, and carry on difficult conversations in Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most. The book is 352 pages, published in 2010, with ISBN 0143118447, and is available from Penguin Books for $11.59 from Amazon.

As stated earlier, the main purpose in the writing of this book is to help people develop the skills and thought processes necessary to have difficult conversations. It is a kind of “self-help” for the fields of communication and management and leadership. The authors write in several points of view, mixing first, second, and third when needed to develop a point or strike a certain tone, using pronouns such as “we” and “us” to include themselves as people in their examples but giving information and advice in a more typical third-person point of view common for nonfiction books and using “you” to include the reader when needed (Stone, Patton, Heen, Fisher p. 4). The writing style is informal, meant to be personable, understandable, and inviting, much like one would hear from a friend or counselor. “This exchange has all the hallmarks of a difficult conversation going off the rails,” the authors write, showing their informal prose with the use of slang. “Months later, Jack… wonders what he could have done differently, and what he should do about it now. But before we get to that, let’s look at what Jack and Michael’s conversation can teach us about how difficult conversations work” (p. 4).  The use of different points of view is meant to make the writing informal and more engaging, and since this is a book about communication, such changes in style are intentional.

The book establishes that all difficult conversations can be broken down into one of three sub-conversations: the “what happened?” conversation, the feelings conversation, and the identity conversation (pp. 7–17). The authors contend that each of these conversations are larger conversations people have about themselves and their identities, and that they reflect not only our understanding, but how the conversation and conflict reflect on people’s perceptions of self and self-worth.  When people have a difficult conversation, they are having several conversations at once, which include both rational and emotional elements. The authors note that the difficulty in the conversation can come from the topic and the skill required to have the conversation (pp. 7–17). The authors also conclude that much disagreement comes from people having differing perceptions about what is happening in the situation or argument, as well as different assumptions about intent (pp. 44–50).

One of the biggest pieces of communication advice given in the book is about managing and assigning blame and how blaming someone can interfere with having an effective, positive, and productive discussion. The authors point out that every person in a conversation has his or her own clear understanding of who is to blame, and when social networks are involved virtual miscommunciation can run rife (p. 57). The authors suggest that a number of steps can be taken to remediate and therefore change the nature of the conversation so that instead of blame, the purpose of an inquiry leads more toward understanding roles of contribution to a problem or situation (pp. 59–63). As the authors point out, “Other than in extreme cases, such as child abuse, almost every situation that gives rise to a conversation is the result of a joint contribution system. Focusing on only one or the other of the contributors obscures rather than illuminates that system.” By this they mean that everyone contributes to a situation and the responsibility and roles are complex. Therefore it is not worth pursuing the assignment of blame as such an action does not illuminate the real issue and cannot lead parties involved toward a more rational and productive conversation to solve or rectify the issue.

The authors give several tools for dealing with the different aspects of difficult conversations. For the issues about identity and feelings, the authors make a point of helping people understand their feelings and separate them from the issues in the conversation as that can confuse the message and make people less receptive to speak or listen (85–100). As the authors point out, “When important feelings remain unexpressed, you may experience a loss of self-esteem, wondering why you don’t stick up for yourself. You deprive your colleagues, friends, and family members of the opportunity to learn and to change in response to your feelings. And, perhaps most damagingly, you hurt the relationship” (p. 90). In other words, the authors express the idea that avoiding discussing or acknowledging feelings in a conversation can be damaging to one’s sense of self and to the social or work environment one is in.

For understanding identity and how our sense of identity plays a role in the difficult conversations we must have with colleagues, friends, or family members, the authors identity three pertinent questions, “Am I competent? Am I a good person? Am I worthy of love?” (p. 112). Stone et al. explain that these questions come up repeatedly during difficult conversations or conversations in which social capital must be tested and spent, and it leaves people feeling vulnerable. The authors acknowledge that dealing with the issue of identity as presented and as it pertains to its role in navigating difficult conversations is not a “quick fix” (p. 113).

One strategy the authors use to combine the elements of what is needed in terms of skill, knowledge, and demeanor for successfully navigating a difficult conversation is to develop and adopt a “third story” approach (p. 147). Such a maneuver, the authors argue, helps people detach from their ego and understand their situation and disagreement or otherwise difficult conversation as it pertain to the outsider, such as a mediator or judicial figure. This approach is meant to subdue subjectivity for objectivity.

Throughout the book, the content discussed above is developed through description and “case studies” that are illustrated examples of the points the author lay out dramatized into scenarios to show the context of the principle in application. For example, the authors give “Jill’s story” to illustrate communication style differences in assigning blame and a conversation between “Brian” and “Ruth” to illustrate a point about persistence (pp. 151, 157). This method of explaining a problem through short scenarios and dramatizations is effective in helping readers understand the point and how it is applied.

Overall, the book is helpful to people looking to understand and improve upon their communication styles.  Some of the scenarios the authors deliver seem too clean for situations and don’t acknowledge the history of a relationship outside of a verbal communication issue. For example. In the story of “Brian” and “Ruth,” the relationship between the two is evident that there has been some friction in the past. This friction would be present in the conversation illustrated, but the authors do not deal with it, nor do they give people tips on how to handle situations in which irrational, emotional, and a lack of calm are dominant. In truth, such situations are rare and perhaps there is no successful outcome, but the authors could have expounded a bit on how to mediate a situation in which someone is acting irrational and emotional and cannot be calmed. While this is a drawback, the book is more thoughtful and based in better research than many of its contemporaries, including The Strategy of Conflict, which is often disjointed and focuses on broader issues than effective communication, lending itself to be more philosophical than practical.

Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most is a useful and enlightening book for managers, people who work with customers and clients, or individuals who may have difficulty and anxiety when faced with an uncomfortable situation that requires communication.

References

Schelling, T. (1981). The strategy of conflict. Boston: Harvard University Press.

Stone, D., Patton, B., Heen, S. and Fisher, R. (2000) Difficult conversations: How to discuss what matters most. New York: Penguin.