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A: Think about your own life. Is there an upcoming conversation that makes you anxious? That you dread or aren't sure whether to even attempt? That keeps you up at night? That's a difficult conversation. It's anything you find it hard to talk about. What is difficult for me may not be difficult for you, so it's hard to generalize in terms of content. But some common examples include giving negative feedback, admitting a mistake, breaking up with someone, expressing strong feelings, talking about sensitive subjects like race or gender, even letting someone know how much we love them.
Importantly, we've found that there are adjustments people can make both in their assumptions and in how they engage in conversations that can greatly improve the chances that their conversations will go well. And that's why we wrote the book.
Q: What would you say are the three biggest mistakes people make in difficult conversations?
A: The biggest mistake people make is rooted in a very basic assumption: that we are right, and the other person is wrong. What are we right about? We're right that you drive too fast. We're right that your comments during the meeting were inappropriate. We're right that we deserve a raise, that the contractor overcharged me, or that our boss is sexist.
The problem is, we're not right. Difficult conversations are never about getting the facts right. They are about conflicting perceptions, feelings, and values. They're not about what a contract says, they're about what the contract means. They are not about which child-rearing book is most popular, they're about which child-rearing book we should follow. They're not about what's true, they are about what is important.
This first mistake assuming that we're right, and the conversation is about getting them to see that we're right leads us to make the second biggest mistake. It seems trivial, but it's actually profound: we don't ask enough questions. If you read a transcript of a difficult conversation, you'll see that about 90% of what is said is advocacy, and only 10% is inquiry. That's a recipe for disaster, especially since if we're going to learn more about why we see and interpret things differently, we need to understand how you see things first. So when your neighbor yells at you for making too much noise, don't yell back. Ask questions. What's going on with her, why is the noise so upsetting? What is she imagining the standards of noise level should be? The better you understand her, the better your conversation will go.
Third, we assume that to solve the problem, we should stay rational and avoid feelings. Feelings are messy and distracting. But when feelings are part of the problem, and usually they are at the very heart of difficult conversations, then you can't handle the problem well without also addressing how people are feeling. The issue is not just that your husband keeps coming home late, it's that you feel hurt and lonely. It's not just that someone on the team isn't pulling their weight, it's how others are feeling unsupported, unfairly treated, or let down. If you're going to get to the heart of the problem, then feelings are central to the discussion.
Q: What are three keys to handling a difficult conversation well?
A: First, make sure you know your purpose. NASA doesn't send up the space shuttle and then try to decide the purpose of the mission. And you shouldn't launch into a difficult conversation without first considering what it is you hope to accomplish. If you're thinking, 'I want to have a conversation because I'm upset,' or 'I just think we need to talk,' that's not good enough. Your purpose needs to be forward-looking. Do you want the other person to understand you better? Do you want them to apologize? Is there a problem you want the two of you to work out?
Second, ask yourself what reaction the other person might have that is most likely to throw you off balance. Are you thrown off balance when someone cries? Accuses you of bad intentions? Rejects you? Gets angry? Withdraws? Identify which reactions are toughest for you to deal with and why. And then plan for how you might respond.
Third, take the pressure off yourself. Difficult conversations are part of life. Sure, you can become more skilled at having them, but they're never going to go away, and having a rough time now and then doesn't mean you're incompetent. Often, especially at the beginning of a conversation, we find ourselves tongue-tied, or just plain scared, and we can't articulate what we want or need to say. But the goal is not eloquence, it's openness and honesty. If you remember not to put too much pressure on yourself to manage the conversation perfectly, and you stick with it, over time, you and the other person will come to a better understanding, and perhaps, an improved relationship.
Q: Are there times when it's better just to walk away from a difficult conversation?
A: Absolutely, yes. You can't have a conversation every time your boss or spouse ticks you off. There's too little time in the day. But neither should you make the opposite mistake. Too often, we shy away from having conversations because we think they'll be hard. And that's true, the conversation may be hard. But not having it isn't cost-free either. Your feelings will fester, and you'll wonder why you don't stick up for yourself. The problems persist unaddressed. And in the long run, not raising important issues is likely to be more damaging to relationships than the pain caused by raising them.
Q: What is the 'third story' and why is it important?
A: As the old saying goes, 'There are two sides to every story.' Well, the old saying is wrong. Every story has three sides, and it's this third side what we call the 'third story' that you want to get familiar with before you have a difficult conversation. The third story is neither your story nor the other person's story. Instead, it's the story a mediator or impartial friend would tell about what's going on. It's how they might describe without agreeing with either of us what the issues or differences are between us.
Imagine that you and your roommate argue over the dishes. My story is you're an inconsiderate slob. Your story is that I'm obsessively neat. If I begin the conversation from inside my story by saying, 'We need to talk about the fact that you're a slob,' you're going to get defensive. If we begin from your story, I'm going to be defensive. So we're stuck. How to begin? The answer is to 'begin from the third story,' which would sound like this: 'You and I have different preferences around when the dishes get done. Let's try to talk about that.' That's a story we can both sign onto, and this gets us off to a good start.
Q: Is it true that women are better at handling difficult conversations than men?
A: Contrary to conventional wisdom, it's our experience that men and women handle difficult conversations equally well that is to say, equally poorly. It may be that women care more or even talk more about feelings, but that doesn't translate into increased skill in dealing with them. No matter who we are or what gender we each have certain feelings we find hard to discuss, certain relationships that stretch us to the limits of our capacity to deal with them. And we all fall into the same conversational traps, and make the same wrong-headed assumptions that lead to trouble. It's not about gender, it's about being human.
Q: How can your method work if only one of the two people involved is using it?
A: Do you mean to say there are people out there who haven't read our book? Well, the good news is, these techniques are designed to be used even with those people who are determined to make your conversations as unpleasant as possible.
Having a conversation is like taking a road trip in one of those cars used to teach people how to drive the ones with two steering wheels. You can steer the conversation, but so can the other person. Which means that neither of you is fully in control.
So you'll head in a useful direction, and the other person will send both of you careening toward a telephone pole. The key is learning to keep the car on the road, and in difficult conversations, that means re-framing unhelpful comments into constructive comments. If your kid calls you a jerk, you can reframe by saying: 'It sounds like you're feeling really upset at something I did.' If your parents tell you how irresponsible you are for staying out late at night, you can begin by appreciating the fact that they care about your well-being. Almost anything, no matter how negative, can be re-framed into something constructive.
Q: What if you're absolutely sure that you're right and the other person is wrong? For instance, what if you're having a conversation with your daughter about her smoking being bad for her? Does the suggestion to 'understand the other person's story' still apply?
A: You are right. Smoking is bad for your daughter's health. But here's the catch: That's not what this conversation is really about. Your daughter knows that smoking is bad for her. What makes the conversation difficult are the strong feelings and perceptions each of you have about smoking, and about each other. What does smoking mean to her? Does it help her relax? Fit in with her friends? Feel independent? And what does it mean to you? What are your fears about her health? Your sense of not having control over her behavior? Your frustration with her lack of interest in talking about it?
As long as you're stuck on proving to her that you're right, you miss the boat entirely. If instead, you describe your feelings, and elicit your daughter's, you may actually have an impact on her. And in any event, you'll understand each other better, and keep the channels open to discuss the issue of smoking down the road.
Q: Say I have to fire someone. In most difficult conversations the outcome is dependent upon the other person's story, but in this situation I have the sole power to impose the outcome. What's the point of understanding the other person's story here?
A: Having the power to impose an outcome shouldn't turn a dialogue into a monologue. Even firing someone should be a two-way conversation. Why? Because being willing to listen to their reactions, to sit with their anger, disappointment, or fear, has few risks and may have enormous payoffs for the person being fired, and for your company. First, you may learn something about why this employee hasn't worked out. From their point of view, what has the company contributed to their failure? Not enough training? Unclear direction? Poor treatment by a supervisor? You may be alerted to problems that don't end when this person walks out the door.
Second, you demonstrate that you care about this person as a human being. This may be important for your own sense of compassion and desire to help, and that's reason enough to do it. But it's also good for the bottom line. Why do people sue? Often it's because they feel unfairly treated, and they can't get anyone to listen to them. Not to agree with them, but to listen. So filing suit and getting their day in court is the only avenue they see for getting your attention and having a chance to tell their story. And at the most extreme, not feeling listened to is one of the factors that drives people to do dangerous or destructive things. Whether it's trashing their office, stealing a client, badmouthing the organization or sabotaging a computer system, the frustration behind this kind of striking out is sometimes linked to whether the former employee felt heard and cared about by any one person inside the organization.
Q: What suggestions can you offer for how to deliver bad news in general?
A: Nothing that'll make it good news. But you can avoid making the impact worse than it needs to be. Our advice is this: be direct. Put the bad news up front rather than at the end. (You may want to give people a one sentence signal, so they can prepare themselves internally, but it doesn't help to beat around the bush or 'start with the positive,' if there is a big 'But' coming.)
Take responsibility for your contribution to the way things worked out, and don't try to control the other person's reaction give them the space to be upset. If the news is bad, it's normal for the other person to feel hurt or angry, and trying to convince them that things aren't as bad as they seem will only convince them that you don't really understand how they feel. Of course, as we said above, you should try to be empathetic, and listen as non-defensively as you are able.
At the same time, it's appropriate to defend yourself from unfair or abusive responses. The fact that the other person is upset doesn't give them license to say things that aren't true, or to blame you for all of their problems. You can be clear, compassionate and responsible, and still defend yourself from accusations that you feel are inappropriate.
Q: Your method advocates the importance of revealing one's feelings. Is it always a good idea to reveal feelings, or is it sometimes better to conceal them?
A: You don't want to be walking around all day long blabbing about your feelings. That's exhausting not only for you, but for everyone around you.
But when the relationship is important and your feelings are strong and they remain strong even after you've given the matter some thought you may want to discuss how you're feeling. The truth is that if your feelings are strong enough, they'll be communicated one way or another. They'll either leak out through your body language and tone of voice, or worse, you'll lose the internal fight to repress them and you'll explode. So the question isn't, 'Should you express your feelings or hide them?' The real question is, 'How should you express your feelings? Directly and clearly, or indirectly and inappropriately?'
Q: Do you have any tips on how to make talking about your feelings easier?
A: A friend of ours asked us for some difficult conversations advice recently. He visited his friend in the hospital every day for a week, and when his friend recovered, she never once thanked him.
We advised him to share his feelings with his friend. 'I already tried that,' he griped, 'and it was a disaster! In situations like this, sharing feelings just doesn't help.'
'What did you actually say to her?' we asked.
'I told her my feelings. I said she was thoughtless and selfish. And all it did was start a fight.'
Our friend made the classic mistake of confusing judgments with feelings. They seem the same but they're not. There's a huge difference between saying, 'You're selfish,' which is a judgment, and saying, 'I felt hurt,' which is a feeling. People react to judgments by defending themselves and fighting back. People usually react to the expression of actual feelings much more sympathetically and productively.
Our friend went back and talked to his friend again. This time, he avoided making a judgment, and instead said 'I feel hurt that you didn't thank me.' His friend listened patiently to what he was feeling and why, and then apologized. The conversation was not easy; our friend felt vulnerable and awkward. But it...
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