Saturday, October 01, 2016

Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most (Book Review #49 of 2016)


Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most by Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton, and Sheila Heen.

A year ago I read the book Crucial Conversations (CC) (my review), which is quite similar to this book and perhaps more well-known. But I found Difficult Conversations (DC) to have fresh insights and actually be an easier read-- it doesn't contain all the fluff and testimonials that CC does. The authors of this book are Harvard academics. Bruce Patton's book Getting to Yes, on negotiation, is on my to-read list, and I wonder how it squares with this one-- where the point is not to see the DC as a negotiation. I think the main difference between CC and DC are that CC approaches the conversation with a strategy of asking "What do I want?" whereas this book has a goal of expressing "How do I feel?" (So, in CC you say "I want..." whereas in DC you say "I feel...") Both books are worth reading, keeping notes as reference, and revisiting frequently. My favorite review on the cover comes from management guru Tom Peters: “I’m on my third reading. Half the pages are dog-eared. This is a mind-bogglingly powerful book. For life.” Another book I'd recommend with the above pair is Toxic Workplace by Kusy and Holloway (my review), where the reader is given strategies on how to deal with difficult people.

The goal is to make the difficult conversation a "learning conversation." It requires talking about feelings in order to resolve the conflict, don't avoid the underlying emotions but seek to have them heard and understand the other person's emotions as well. It is not about comparing objective facts; perceptions matter more than facts when it comes to human beings. You can boil a difficult conversation down to three pillars:
1. Learn their story.
2. Express your goals and feelings.
3. Problem-solve together.

Before having a difficult conversation, have an inward one with yourself. Be humble and assume you lack important information. Perhaps the other party has done something out of ignorance rather than malice, or has something going on you know nothing about. What is the other person's worldview that makes him accept his positions? Don't accept or reject their point of view, just work to understand it. Empathy is crucial-- imagine yourself in the other person's story or imagine how the situation might appear to an outside observer with even less facts. Recognize and cope with any personal identity issues in your conversation with yourself. Are you bringing other unrelated problems into this one?

Find out: "What did I contribute to the conflict?" Was it avoidance of an issue that caused feelings to fester? Was I being testy? What did I perceive, what triggers did I feel? Work out a "what can we do differently next time?" conversation with the other person (crucial if it's a longer-term relationship). You should make sure your words in the conflict resolution truly express what you're feeling. "I feel..." should be spoken and heard, rather than "I want..." "I feel" avoids accusation and gets right to the reason for the conversation. DCs are not about objective facts but about what is important--feelings. Definitely avoid exaggeration, and don't deny what the other person either perceived or felt.

Everyone wants to change others, millions in America marry on the belief that he/she can change the other person-- that's not happening if you set out to do it in conversation. We have to learn to accept the person well enough to live and work with him or her. If you set out to change the other in conversation, you will not achieve what you and will harm the relationship. But a mutual learning conversation where you hear the other person's feelings and seek to understand his or her worldview could go a long way to the change you hope to see.
Here's the tough part for me: Understand that even if you shared your deep feelings about how the person's actions made you feel, he or she may engage in the same behavior even if they understand how it makes you feel. He or she might even just forget! That's what people do; at some point you make the choice to love then where they're at. (This is supposed to be easier for me as a Christian, because I know that I should forgive others because God forgave me while I was yet a sinner, an enemy, who did not love Him. Romans 5:8. But it's difficult and requires reminder and practice.) He or she may not have the power to change. You've got to let it go and instead find your own identity in the conflict.

The conflict is not who you are, and it's not all about you and your needs. Begin the conversation with the third-person point of view. "I saw this...now, help me understand where you're coming from. Why did you say 'X'?" Maintain eye contact with the person, listen and make sure they feel heard (the authors do not go through the "create a safe place" directive like Crucial Conversations' did). Put the problem on the table and work through it.

The authors strongly recommend again the strategy of dressing an assertion up as a question, and admonish the reader to be careful asking any questions in the difficult conversation. I have been intentionally trying to frame my points as questions, I think whole books have been written on the best way to do this in negotiation. Instead, the authors write you should just say "I feel..." or "I understand what you're saying, and I feel this way..." If you're going to ask a question, make it an invitation -- "Can you help me understand this? Can you tell me how you felt about X...?" Then, paraphrase your understanding of their feelings. Say "My view is..." and share life experiences about how you came to that view; then LISTEN as the other person explains his or her own view. State what is still missing in the story, or what doesn't make sense to you.

The ultimate challenge is perhaps to "find the 'and' and not the 'or.'" Things may not easily be black or white, you perceive them as black and she perceives them as white and in the process we find out why each person feels that way. Again, this is different from Crucial Conversations where you ask "What do I want this conversation to accomplish?" and instead have a learning conversation where you understand "What are my feelings, and what are the other person's feelings?" There are no easy acronyms to remember.

I give this book 4 stars out of 5. I need to constantly revisit the thoughts in this book and practice. This book is excellent for any parent, pastor, teacher, manager, or spouse. 

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