Difficult conversations are a constant throughout life, at work, at home, and in the world. We never outgrow them, or get a promotion that saves us from them, or meet a person who’s so perfect for us we never have to have them.
But difficult conversations, if we engage in them successfully, are the mark of a healthy relationship. In fact, the success and survival of any relationship, business or personal, depends on the ability of those involved to master difficult conversations. Difficult Conversations will help you ask for that raise, bring up issues with your spouse, understand your kids better, and get to the bottom of your feud with your neighbor.
1-Page Summary of Difficult Conversations
In business, in day-to-day interactions, and in personal matters, difficult conversations come up all the time — conversations where people’s thoughts, feelings, and perceptions about certain issues are in conflict. But if we can learn how to handle difficult conversations more productively, our relationships and our lives will improve.
Difficult conversations involve anything we find it difficult to talk about. In these conversations, we usually fear consequences, whether we bring up the issue or avoid it. If we avoid the subject, we risk our feelings festering or the situation worsening. If we bring up the issue, we risk upsetting the other person or not getting what we want.
Difficult conversations are so difficult first and foremost because of how we approach them. Most of us approach difficult conversations as though we are right and the other person is wrong, as though our feelings are the most important, and as though we have to either “win” the conversation, or risk “losing it.” To have better difficult conversations, we have to change how we think of difficult conversations, and how we approach them.
(Shortform note: There is a lot of information packed into this book, and consequentially this summary. While the 1-page summary hits all the major ideas of _Difficult Conversations, _the full summary goes into much greater detail and instruction on how to use these ideas.)
The 3 Conversations Within a Difficult Conversation
The authors studied thousands of difficult conversations and discovered that they all shared the same basic structure comprised of 3 conversations going on within the difficult conversation:
- The What Happened Conversation
- The Feelings Conversation
- The Identity Conversation
In difficult conversations that don’t go well, we usually make crucial mistakes in each of these internal conversations.
The What Happened Conversation
In a bad difficult conversation, the What Happened Conversation is about who’s “right” and who’s “wrong.” In these conversations, we usually confuse intention with impact and believe, because we’re upset about something, that the other person intended to hurt us. We blame the other person for the issue, and view ourselves as victims. We essentially turn what could be a productive difficult conversation into an argument about who was in the right and who deserves to be punished.
The Contribution System
The antidote to this harmful version of the What Happened Conversation is to embrace something called the Contribution System. In any difficult conversation, no one person is to blame: **difficult conversations arise when two people have both contributed to the situation to make it difficult. **There are some exceptions to this rule, but in general, conflict arises when two people’s choices and beliefs clash with one another, meaning both people have contributed something to the conflict.
The Contribution System helps us focus on the ways we might have contributed to the issue so that we can take some ownership over the situation and make better choices in the future. It also helps us express the ways we think the other person has contributed in a productive fashion — the other person has less room to get defensive (which quickly turns a difficult conversation into a blaming conversation) if they feel we’ve taken some responsibility for our own actions as well.
The Feelings Conversation
In a bad difficult conversation, the Feelings Conversation gets suppressed and goes unmentioned, or becomes one-sided and ultimately turns into blame — most of us go into difficult conversations either:
- Oblivious to our own feelings about the issue
- Convinced we shouldn’t bring our feelings into the conversation
- Or convinced that our feelings are the only ones that matter.
Analyzing Your Emotional Footprint and Negotiating Your Feelings
The first antidote to this harmful version of the Feelings Conversation is getting to know our emotional footprint — what emotions we feel comfortable acknowledging and what emotions we don’t feel comfortable acknowledging, usually based on how our family handled emotions. Once we’re more aware of what emotions we easily identify versus what emotions we hide from even ourselves, we can start to be more aware of what triggers these emotions and how we can better manage them.** All emotions are valid and acceptable — however, we can learn to act on our emotions in healthier ways.**
Then, we need to negotiate our feelings with ourselves before going into a difficult conversation. Because we’re all comfortable with some emotions and uncomfortable with others, there are usually feelings lurking beneath the feelings we readily admit we have. **We need to learn to delve deeper into our feelings and practice identifying and analyzing all the emotions that pop up for us in difficult situations. **Once we do that, we can begin to negotiate, on our own, why these feelings are popping up, what past experiences and current triggers are bringing these feelings up, and whether the stories we’re telling ourselves about the current situation are fair or based in reality.
The Identity Conversation
In a bad difficult conversation, we view our identity as all-or-nothing: for example, if we hurt someone, we’re a bad person, or conversely, we’re a good person, and the other person’s complaints about us aren’t valid. In general, identity issues center on 3 unspoken questions:
- Am I competent?
- Am I a good person?
- Am I worthy of love?
In difficult conversations, we’re all worried that the answer to each question is no.
The And Stance
The antidote to this harmful version of the Identity Conversation is to develop a more grounded identity. Humans are complex: no human is all good or all bad. We all make mistakes, we all have complex intentions, and we’re all still worthy of love.
The And Stance allows us to complicate our identity and acknowledge our complexity by embracing the contradictions. You’re a good person and you hurt someone’s feelings. You’re competent and you made a mistake this time. You’re worthy of love and there are things you can work on to be a better person. You’re a good boss and you have to fire a long-time employee. You’re a good husband and you haven’t been paying attention to your wife’s feelings lately. Adopting the And Stance helps us break out of all-or-nothing identities, and ground our identity in reality instead of absolutes.
Guidelines for a Good Difficult Conversation
Once you’re aware of the meta-conversations and better ways to approach those conversations, you can start navigating the difficult conversation as a whole. Here are some basic tips and reframings that will help you have the best difficult conversation you can.
Replace Certainty with Curiosity
Instead of going into the conversation certain that you’re right, certain that the other person had bad intentions, or certain that the conversation is going to go well, focus instead on being curious about the situation. What is the other person’s side of the story? How do they interpret the events that occurred? How do they view your contributions? What, in their minds, would improve the situation? The more curious you can be about their perspective, the less accusatory you’ll be about what’s happened, and the more room they’ll have to participate with you and help you find a workable solution.
Separate Intention from Impact
Other people’s actions make us feel certain ways depending on our past experiences and personal emotional baggage. When we get hurt or upset, our first impulse is usually to assume the other person meant for us to feel this way. This is rarely the case. **Just because someone hurt your feelings (impact) doesn’t mean that’s what they were trying to do (intention). **We’re always quick to assume that other people have bad intentions, though we give ourselves a lot of leeway when we hurt someone because we know that wasn’t our intention.
Assuming someone meant to hurt you will color how you view them and will affect the course of the difficult conversation. Most of us assume bad intentions = bad people, and we’re far less likely to be curious about, understanding of, or accepting of the other person’s perspective if we view them as a bad person, rather than a good person who’s made mistakes.
Be a Good Listener
Listening is an incredibly important skill in a difficult conversation. One of the most common complaints the authors hear about difficult conversations is that the other person isn’t listening. This really means we need to get better at listening if we expect others to truly listen to us_. _
Humans long to be heard and understood. Have you noticed how often people will repeat themselves or double-down on an argument in a difficult conversation? This is a surefire sign that they don’t feel heard, and they don’t feel like the other person is trying to empathize with their perspective. Making sure your conversation partner feels heard, understood, and accepted first will make it easier for that person to hear your point of view.
If we’re having trouble listening to someone, it usually means we’re wrapped up in our own inner voice. Our inner voice, or inner dialogue, is running all the time — but during a difficult conversation, our inner voice is usually yelling about the 3 meta-conversations. Once you understand those 3 conversations and have worked through your own contributions, feelings, and identity, your inner voice will quiet down and you can be a better listener.
3 things you can do to be a good listener:
- Ask questions with the goal of learning instead of trying to prove a point.
- Paraphrase their responses to show that you’re listening and trying to understand them.
- Acknowledge their feelings, which might require you to listen for what’s going unsaid in the conversation.
Difficult conversations are really problem-solving opportunities, and problem-solving is a team sport. It will take both of you or everyone involved in a difficult conversation to get to the best solution, and getting to that solution will require you to work through the difficult conversation first. Once you’ve done your homework on the 3 meta-conversations and shifted how you approach the big-picture difficult conversation, you’ll be able to uphold your own end of it and help the other person participate better.
Full Summary of Difficult Conversations
Introduction to Difficult Conversations
Difficult Conversations was written by members of the Harvard Negotiation Project, whose goal is to establish and circulate conflict resolution strategies. The first book published by the HNP, Getting to Yes, has been massively successful since its publishing in 1981. While Getting to Yes focuses on effective strategies for traditional negotiation, _Difficult Conversations _applies the “Harvard Method” more broadly to everyday disagreements. Negotiations happen in everyday life, and people don’t seem to want to have them. Or, more trou…
Read the rest of the “Difficult Conversations” summary at my new book summary product, Shortform.
Here’s what you’ll find in the full Difficult Conversations summary:
- Introduction to Difficult Conversations
- Chapter 1: What Are Difficult Conversations?
- Chapter 2: What Happened Mistake #1 – Arguing About Who’s Right
- Chapter 3: What Happened Mistake #2 – Assuming Intentions
- Chapter 4: What Happened Mistake #3 – Blame
- Exercise: Practicing the Contribution System
- Chapter 5: The Feelings Conversation
- Exercise: Discovering Your Emotional Footprint
- Chapter 6: The Identity Conversation
- Chapter 7: Whether to Start a Difficult Conversation
- Exercise: Separating Intention from Impact
- Chapter 8: Beginning a Difficult Conversation
- Chapter 9: The Importance of Listening
- Chapter 10: Uphold Your End of a Difficult Conversation
- Chapter 11: Controlling a Difficult Conversation for a Better Outcome
- Chapter 12: The Last Phase — Problem-Solving
- Appendix: Ten Common Questions About Difficult Conversations
- Exercise: Navigating the Three Conversations
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