Review – Difficult Conversations

Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most. Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton, and Sheila Heen. Penguin Books, 1999.
Their model is that a difficult conversation has three aspects: “what happened,” “feelings,” and “identity.” When these are mixed together, it can be hard to address one thing without confusing another. By switching the goal from “get my message out” to learning, a real conversation can occur.

If we focus on hearing the other’s story, and trying to understand impact rather than worrying about intent and blame, we can better understand what happened. By letting people own and express their own feelings, we can affirm what they feel rather than reject it. By accepting that we can be good AND bad, effective AND not effective, and so on, we can talk about who we really are.

The last half of the book suggests techniques we can learn to make conversations better for everybody involved. For example, we can talk about how something affects us without requiring that others see it the same way; we can acknowledge the we don’t have “the” truth; and we can avoid exaggeration. The story to focus on is the “third story” of our different perceptions. We can reframe one-sided statements to help them reflect more of the whole truth.

I like this book; it’s explicit about ways to improve our conversations, and I found that very helpful. (Reviewed August, ’03)