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

We attempt or avoid difficult conversations every day-whether dealing with an underperforming employee, disagreeing with a spouse, or negotiating with a client. The book provides a step-by-step approach to having those tough conversations with less stress and more success.

Why we chose it

Both of us have experienced situations where constructive communication is difficult to achieve, both in personal and in professional settings. We learn that facts are secondary to communication styles and techniques. When a conversation triggers someone’s self-defensiveness, the focus lies heavily on explaining oneself instead of jointly discussing solutions for the problem. This leads to lengthy arguments, frustration, and often some hurts – dysfunctional and ineffective discussion all-in-all.

Difficult Conversations sounded like a great title to read for improving communication techniques in our relationship and at other aspects of our lives as well. The book has excellent reviews, so it looked like a no brainer to take up.

Key takeaways

We often avoid difficult conversations because we fear the results. There are three aspects to difficult conversations that need to be understood and correctly addressed to have constructive conversations:

  1. What happened: this is not so much about the facts of what has happened. It is about two differing perspectives: what happened based on one’s perspective and what happened based on the other’s perspective. Failure to understand this concept might end in the blaming game.
  2. Feelings: difficult conversations always involve emotions – in fact this is why they are difficult. Trying to focus solely on cognitive reasoning while ignoring, dismissing, or even belittling the other person’s feelings will not result in a productive conversation.
  3. Self-identity: we all have our own perspective on what kind of person we are and aim to become. These are the core values we strive to implement in our lives. I am a responsible person; I am a capable person; I am a good person. Difficult conversations might make people doubt themselves and their identity. For example, a conversation about cutting costs might make people feel that they are incapable. Understanding this human tendency is important to have a constructive conversation.

To make those conversations easier, you can transform conversations into a “Learning Conversation”. You can do this by focusing on curiosity, sharing feelings and refraining from blaming each other.

Actionable advice

1. Talk to understand and ask questions before making judgments

Be neutral and avoid guessing and premature judgment. Ask questions to truly understand where each other is coming from. Instead of guessing each other’s intentions, ask explicitly. This allows both to take a step back and understand how the other person is experiencing the conflict. Often times this will change the perception of the situation and make it easier to reach a productive discussion.

2. Acknowledge the other person’s feelings

“I can see you feel upset, I am sorry you feel this way”; “it must have been difficult for you”; “I understand why you feel this way” and so on. Understanding something does not necessarily mean agreeing with it. However, wanting to be acknowledged and understood is an important part of human nature. Starting a difficult conversation with such acknowledgment is a powerful technique to shape the overall mental attitude towards the upcoming conversation.

3. Express yourself clearly and explicitly

Most of the time, we communicate our perception of what the other person did with a frown. It is important to communicate your feelings, but remember to be clear that these are just your feelings and you are not assuming the other person’s intention. Tell the complete story. “When you do xx, it makes me feel this yy because….” This is critical to understand what is important for each other and to detect if there is a misunderstanding.

4. Start the conversation with a Third Story Perspective

Most people start by describing the issue from our own perspective, which will likely raise the defensive barriers of the other person. The Third Story is a conversation told from the view of an impartial observer. It points out the different viewpoints between the tales of the two parties involved. E.g. “You prefer spending the weekend with your friends and I prefer spending the weekend alone with you. I would like to understand why you would like to meet your friends and I would like to explain why I want to just be with you. Then let’s discuss possible solutions”.

How we liked it

Fun: 8/10 | Thought-provoking: 8/10 | Actionable: 10/10

Difficult Conversations is a helpful book with an important insight into human psychology, some common mistakes to avoid, and a lot of practical techniques. We strongly recommend this book to couples, parents, professionals, basically anyone who is keen on building constructive discussions.