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Get Better Results from Difficult Conversations

There's Nothing Easy About Difficult Conversations
I spent time this morning with a client strategizing how best to communicate with a young employee about some performance issues. Having difficult conversations is among the hardest work we all do—whether it is on the job or at home. This issue focuses on helping you get a clearer difficultconservations.jpg picture of what makes difficult conversations difficult, and how to improve your ability to have them productively!

This newsletter draws heavily on three books that I keep close at hand:

Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most, by Stone, Patton and Heen;

Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In, by Fisher and Ury; and,

How the Way We Talk Can Change the Way We Work, by Kegan and Lahey.

Understand Not Only What is Said, But Also What is Thought and Felt

Situation: Alyse, your peer in sales, has failed to meet a deadline again. She promised in the team meeting last week that she would get you her inputs on the advertising copy before leaving the office for five days of customer meetings. It's now two days after the deadline and still nothing from Alyse.

What to do? Many of us do nothing. The stress associated with bringing up a situation like this encourages us to bottle up our reactions and move on.

The trouble is, we don't move on. Instead, we make a withdrawal in our "relationship account" with Alyse. Soon
Alyse's account is overdrawn and she doesn't even know it! What Alyse observes is that we have become
noticeably frostier in conversations and much less willing to work with her.

This is a perfect setup for having a difficult conversation.Before beginning that conversation, it is important to realize
that you will in fact be having three conversations at the same time:

  • the conversation about what happened (the facts)
  • the conversation about feelings
  • the conversation about what this information says about

    each person's identity.

The "What Happened" Conversation

This is the conversation almost everyone is aware of - we are talking about "the facts". What we don't realize is how heavily our perceptions color our view of the facts. In fact, difficult conversations are almost never about the facts. They are about what those facts mean to us. In the example above, Alyse travels frequently. What that fact means is a function of perspective. If you are Alyse, it may mean you are a good sales person who spends the time necessary to maintain strong customer relationships. To others, it may mean Alyse doesn't take her other responsibilities seriously enough.

Normally, people don't take action for what they perceive as bad reasons; they take action for what they see as good reasons. The learning point is this:

Turn the "What Happened" conversation from a tug-of-war about whose interpretation of the facts is "right" into a discovery about what facts, attitudes and beliefs led the other person to conclude that his/her actions were correct.

Chris Argyris's "Ladder of Inference" demonstrates how quickly we proceed from observing a fact to our own subjective interpretation.

This processing is colored by the amount of trust and rapport we have with the other person. For example, a colleague comes late to a meeting. That is the fact. What ladder do we climb from there? The distrustful impulse might be: "She's always late. She doesn't think other people's time is as valuable as hers is. She just doesn't respect others." If she is your close friend, the ladder might tip in an entirely different direction— "She doesn't usually run late. She must have a good reason. I hope her project isn't off track. Better check in with her later to make sure everything is okay."

So, understanding this process, how can we have successful conversations about what happened?

Develop a practice of consciously sorting out the facts (what happened) from your interpretations of those facts. "Alyse didn't turn in her edits for the ad copy. I interpret that to mean this isn't a priority for her. Better check that out."

Use open-ended questions to help a group become aware of its unconscious assumptions. "What facts are we dealing with here? What assumptions are we making?"

Use "Left-Hand Column" technique to help you sort out your thoughts and observations. In the right-hand column, note what was said; in the left one note your thoughts.

Learn to "map" each person's contribution to a given situation. Presume that we are where we are because we all contributed. If you can name those contributions, you can discover new insights, common ground and opportunities for understanding.

The Feelings Conversation

While the "What Happened" conversation is the most obvious,many of us are also aware of the "Feelings" conversation. However, there are strong societal pressures against bringing feelings into a conversation. How many times have you thought or said, "This is just business." We work very hard at staying rational and sticking to the facts. Nevertheless, feelings count.

According to the authors of Difficult Conversations, "the problem with this reasoning is that it fails to take account of one simple fact: difficult conversation do not just involve feelings, they are at their very core about feelings...engaging in a difficult conversation without talking about feelings is like staging an opera without the music."

We tend to describe issues and problems so that our feelings about them are just outside the frame. We pretend that if we focus on problem solving, feelings won't matter. But they do. If you are the advertising manager in the situation above, you are frustrated, perhaps angry, and feel discounted or unimportant. Those feelings will radiate off your conversation with Alyse whether you name them or not. Unexpressed feelings are like water seeking its own level. They will leak into the conversation, and subtly shape it if not overwhelm it. Harboring unexpressed feelings will inhibit your ability to listen to your colleague, creating hurdles to success in the conversation. The learning points:

Become articulate in the language of feelings. Learn to describe your feelings in a vocabulary that is rich and specific. Go beyond "mad," "afraid," and "hurt" to "irate," "panicky" and "indignant." (See chart.)

Work to understand sources of your values about the expression of feelings. How emotionally expressive was your family? How did your parents disagree? What are the norms of your organization about conflict?

Become open to receiving others' feelings. You don't necessarily have to do anything about another person's feelings beyond being willing to acknowledge them. You don't need to justify, judge or talk others out of their feelings. Just learn to hear them and send back the message that you heard them and understand what their feelings are.

Practice identifying and including your feelings in conversations. "Alyse, you are two days late in getting your input on the ad copy back to me. I have missed my deadline with the ad agency and my manager, which is very embarrassing to me. What can we do to get this project back on track?"

The Identity Conversation

The third and most powerful component of any conversation is the one that asks the question "What does this conversation say about me as a person?" If I am talking with Alyse about the ad copy, and what she hears is that she is incompetent, we are going to have a very difficult conversation. We all get through life by building self-portraits. Those portraits are the ways we embed our self-esteem in our everyday working.

To be successful at difficult conversations, we must become fully aware of what is in our own portrait, especially those aspects that are most charged. Parts of your identity, if challenged, will not cause stress. Others will send you into a tailspin. Learn to recognize the tailspin points and how they are most likely to be triggered.

Be aware in any difficult conversation of your potential to disturb your colleague's identity unintentionally. If Alyse is focused on whether she is competent, whether she is an impostor, whether others see her inadequacies and foibles, the conversation will go down a slippery slope. Your need for her input on ad copy won't register, much less get acted upon.

Difficult Conversations authors recommend that we begin by accepting three things about ourselves and the people with whom we have difficult conversations:

1. We all make mistakes. Many times we are afraid to admit our mistakes in the fear that we will seem incompetent. In fact, people who admit mistakes are perceived as more self-confident and assured.

2. Our intentions are complex. We aren't all acting from our simple, altruistic best. We are self-interested, and we act for our self-interest, even when we shroud that self-interest in other motivations. We need to accept that complexity in our colleagues and ourselves.

3. We all contributed. We all helped and we all hindered. Now,
let's try to learn from our experiences so we can do better in the future.

The identity conversation is a very difficult one. Learning to recognize that it exists and to understand your own identity are two great ways to improve your chances of having a productive difficult conversation.


The three conversations framework is a way we can all understand what is happening in a difficult conversation. This understanding then enables us to prepare for and have the tough conversations we need to have. So, the next time you find your blood pressure rising, sit down and ask yourself:

  • What facts are relevant?
  • What specific feelings am I having and where do they come from?
  • What identity questions will this conversation raise?

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