Book Review – Difficult Conversations – How to discuss what matters most By Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton and Sheila Heen

Managing Difficult ConversationsIntroduction

This is a book about conflict management written by authors from the Harvard Negotiator Project. As the comments reveal this book has a lot to stand up for and even though this edition is it’s 10th year anniversary, the book still seems to be a favourite. So why was a book like this needed in the first place? The authors make it clear that while as a people we have advanced technologically, our need to have difficult conversations and the trepidation that goes with having them hasn’t. It was so in the past, is that way now and to be honest is not going to change in the foreseeable future. After all we are humans with diffrent opinions and views and when we interact with each other conflict is inevitable.
So this is not just a book that can be applied to business but it is useful on the homefront as seen through the some listed cases where it has been applied;

  • Using it to teach Argentinean tango
  • Used by Israeli mediators to handle conflict
  • Used to train oil-rig operators
  • Parents have used it to improve  communication with their children

Moreso the book has already been translated into 25 languages. The book is divided into four parts, each split into one or more sections. Covering 311 pages the book will help you learn about:

  • The three types of conversations
  • How to create a learning conversation
  • Questions people ask about difficult conversations.

Following is a review of each part of the book

Part 1 – Problem
This first of the book is the smallest with just one chapter but a very important one. Titled, Sort Out the Three Conversations, it lays a good foundation for what is to come later in the book. It starts with a case study which the authors use to reveal that difficult conversations really consist of three different conversations which are:

  • The what happened conversation – disagreement about what happened
  • The feelings conversation – every difficult conversation asks and answers questions about feelings.
  • Identity conversation – conversations we have with ourselves about what the situation means to us.

Each of these conversations is described briefly and also the need to move away from them to a learning conversation is expressed. This part of the book explains what the problem with difficult conversations are.

Part 2 – Shift to a learning stance
This part of the book has six chapters which goes into more detail about the three conversations mentioned earlier. Starting with the “What Happened?” conversation. This conversation is explained in great detail and some of the topics dealt with are:

  • Stop arguing about who is right
  • Why we argue and why it doesn’t help
  • Why we each see the world differently
  • Don’t assume they meant it: disentangle impact from intent
  • Abandon blame

The “Feelings Conversation” is also discussed. One important aspect covered is the importance of understanding our feelings and expressing them in conversations. Not easy to do but a crucial step for handling difficult conversations. So a question answered here is how to handle our feelings.

Then the “Identity Conversation” is also dealt with. The fact that difficult conversations threathen our identity and why so is revealed. But then how to manage identity conversations is also discussed.

This is a great part of the book with some really good information. If you do decide to read the book, please spend time digesting the information in this section slowly. It cannot be rushed.

Part Three – Creating a Learning Conversation
Partially this is the solution section part of the book, although to find this section useful it is imperative that you have read the previous one. Some key questions are answered here, hence as you read you will be deeply engaged in thought. Here are some of those questions:

  • How do you choose between a difficult conversation to have and ignore?
  • How do you open a difficult conversation?
  • How effective listening impacts difficult conversations.
  • How to express yourself.

There is also information on how to lead a conversation. The final chapter in this section is titled, Putting It All Together, combines what has been discussed in the book so far to illustrate how to handle a difficult conversation using examples. The steps outlined are as follows:

  1. Step One: Prepare by walking through the three conversations.
  2. Step Two: Check your purposes and decide whether to raise it.
  3. Step Three: Start from the third story.
  4. Step Four: Explore their story and yours.
  5. Step Five: Problem solving.

At the end of this chapter is a difficult conversation checklist summarising each step.

Part Four – Ten Questions To Ask About Difficult Conversations
This is the last part of the book and it simply looks at ten questions as the title implies. Each question is answered in detail. Here are the questions:

  1. It sounds like you are saying everything is relative. Aren’t some things just true and can’t somebody simply be wrong?
  2. What if the other person really does have bad intentions – lying, bullying, or intentionally derailing the conversation to get what they want?
  3. What if the person is genuinely difficult, perhaps even mentally ill?
  4. How does this work with someone who has all the power – like my boss?
  5. If I’m the boss/parent why can’t I just tell my subordinates/children what to do?
  6. Isn’t this a very American approach. How does it work in other cultures?
  7. What about conversations that aren’t face to face? What should I do differently if I’m on the phone or email?
  8. Why do you advice people “to bring feelings into the workplace”? I’m not a therapist , and shouldn’t business decisions be made on merits?
  9. Who has time for all this in the real world?
  10. My identity conversation keeps getting stuck in either-or: I’m perfect or I’m horrible. I can’t seem to get past that. What can I do?

This is a really good book to read, and it’s no suprise that it has a 4.5 rating on Amazon.com after 137 reviews. I can confidently say that I will be dipping in and out of the book because it has a lot of information that can influence behaviour very positively. If not anything else the revelation of the three conversations is worth it’s weight in gold.

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