Navigating Difficult Conversations

Scholarship Guide Navigating Difficult Conversations Coffee Talk

Hard conversations are those that most people would prefer not to have, and adulting comes with difficult conversations. Topics of conflict can be anything in your everyday life, from studies, work, romance to family. How do you initiate a conversation with your parents about giving up a scholarship? How do you ask for a raise from your employer? How do you tell your partner about your intentions to take a timeout in the relationship? How do you confront a friend who is avoiding you? These dialogues are often loaded with emotions, making it hard to start, let alone navigate.

Amongst the many negotiation and conflict management self-help books, Difficult Conversations: How To Discuss What Matters Most is a keeper. Authors Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton, and Sheila Heen offer original insights on turning difficult conversations into productive ones. Based on fifteen years of research at the Harvard Negotiation Project, the concepts and techniques discussed in the book have since been integrated into negotiation curricula by established training academies worldwide.

Three Conversations – “What Happened?”, Feelings & Identity

No matter what subject, there are three conversations that are essentially happening within a difficult conversation. Identifying and tackling each of these conversations offers the foundational groundwork to help you prep for difficult conversations and work towards problem-solving.

  • We spend most of our time in the “What happened?” conversation, disagreeing over what happened, what it should have been, who said what, who did what, and who is to blame. Instead of focusing on faults, explore and map the contributions by individual parties that have led to the conflict outcome.
  • The Feelings conversation is always a sensitive one. Should we or should we not have a conversation about emotions? Often feelings are ignored and framed out of the problem, but unaddressed sentiments may resurface like a timebomb, making matters worse in the future.
  • Identity is a critical factor that determines one’s behaviour at the onset of the conversation. For example, if one feels that he or she is a poor communicator, it makes the whole idea of engaging in a conflict discussion unnerving. The Identity conversation is an inner conversation with oneself. “What does this breakdown say about me? Am I the good guy or bad guy, a winner or a loser, a villain or a hero?” You will be surprised by how often individuals are caught up in what the conversation seems to be saying about them. By identifying what’s at stake for each party and getting it out of the way can allow one to feel more balanced in the conversation.

What’s the Purpose? Raise It or Let Go?

Having worked through the three conversations, you can make an informed decision as to whether you wish to raise the issue or to let it go. Define what you want to accomplish from the conversation. The goal should never be an attempt to change the other person. Should you wish to proceed with the difficult conversation, ensure that you make efforts to transform it into an interactive “Learning Conversation”, where you listen to the other party and share your views.

Begin from the Third Story

Conversations become difficult as soon as people begin with their own story, triggering a reaction from the other party to do the same in their defence. The “third story” is how a neutral outsider with no stake in your problem will understand the situation. Wear the mediator hat, remove all judgement, and describe the problem that rings true to both parties simultaneously. Having both parties agree that they each see things differently is a positive first step to producing a conversation focused on joint problem-solving.

Scholarship Guide Navigating Difficult Conversations Grumpy Baby

Take on a Learning Stance

The “I am right, and you are wrong” stance can easily make a conversation go south. We know our actions and intent, and hence we are sure that we are right. As for the other party, we only know what they did and can only assume their intent based on their action. Being complex human beings, we can have conflicting perceptions and values, resulting in different interpretations of a shared experience. So, whilst you have your own story, stay curious about another person’s story.

Adopting the “And Stance” is about understanding the perceptions, values, and interpretations of both sides. It requires an open mind and a shift to a learning mindset. Prepare to embrace some overwhelming opposing views. To accept a differing view is not to agree. You do not have to give up your own views in learning someone else’s side of the story. In exploring their stories, you too have to express your honest feelings and share the information, reasoning, and experience behind your views. Do not accuse, exaggerate, or present your perspective as the truth.

Here’s an example of an “And Stance” in a workplace setting. “I now understand that you felt hurt that I abruptly dismissed your idea in front of the client during the meeting. I was disappointed and frustrated to find mistakes in the pitch documents, which would have left the client with a poor impression. I acknowledge that you did not have enough time to prepare for the last-minute meeting; you even skipped lunch to complete the deck. On my part, this is a deal that will connect us to a chain of potential partnerships with the group, and hence I was hoping we nail a perfect pitch.”

This exercise is not to determine whose view is right but to allow both parties express their feelings and recognize the differences. It does not mean that all views are equally valid, but it will help both parties evaluate if their views make sense in light of new information and different interpretations. By putting all opinion cards on the table, we can have a better picture of what actually happened, creating a transparent and open setting for all parties to engage and problem-solve together.

I know I’m right

In conversations where you know that you are “absolutely right”, such as confronting a friend who has been caught lying, where the universe will agree with your assessment that it is wrong to tell lies, remember that being right does not solve the problem. Remind yourself of the goal of the conversation. By learning about the other party’s story – as to why he lied and what he thought of his actions can help you rewrite your discussion with him or her for the better.  

Delivering a Decision

Even in situations where you plan on delivering bad news, understanding the other party’s story and feelings can still be relevant and should not diminish your power to implement your decision. For example, in speaking with your parents about the decision to forfeit a scholarship, the “And Stance” allows you to say “I’ve decided to give up the sports scholarship because I am not able to fulfil the training commitment, and I wish to opt-out of the major games that have been putting a lot of pressure on my physical and mental well-being, and I understand that you are upset by my decision and that I should reconsider, and I’m not changing my mind, and I know that you are concerned about my tuition fee, and I have explored some alternative options to ensure….”

“And” helps you to continue to stay curious about the other person’s story and be clear in your decision message delivery.

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In exploring their stories and yours, the Difficult Conversation guide recommends the use of reframing techniques to lead a conversation in scenarios where your counterpart continues to accuse, blame, and judge despite your attempt to mediate. Reframing techniques involve acknowledging the other party’s feelings, conveying your emotions and intent, inviting the other party to share more on how they feel, recognizing that both of you have contributed to the problem, and suggesting to explore both sides of the story rather than focusing on whose fault it is.

Tough Talk Conclusion

“Delivering a difficult message is like throwing a hand grenade. Coated with sugar, thrown hard or soft, a hand grenade is still going to do damage. Try as you may, there’s no way to throw a hand grenade with tact or to outrun consequences. And keeping it to yourself is no better. Choosing not to deliver a difficult message is like hanging on to a hand grenade once you pulled the pin.”

Tough talks help us grow as a person. Do not be afraid to face them. Whilst we muster the courage to confront, a third option exists in the recommended technique of shifting a one-sided message delivery stance to an interactive learning stance. Learn initiate a “learning conversation” where both parties work towards a mutual understanding and pave your way to building constructive communications in conflict management.

Works Cited
Stone, Douglas, et al. Difficult Conversations: How To Discuss What Matters Most. Penguin, 2010.