Good day, team.

I’ve been reading a good book called “Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most” by Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton and Sheila Heen, and would like to share some of it with you this week.

Plain and simple, a difficult conversation is anything you find hard to talk about. Whether at work or home, we all face the unpleasant feelings that come up when we know we need to have a difficult conversation with someone.

Here are some great examples:

  • Firing or laying off employees
  • Letting a client know that the project you bid on will be twice as expensive as your original quote
  • Telling a sibling or friend that they need to pay back the money you loaned
  • Explaining to one of your parents that he or she needs to move into an assisted living center
  • Describing to a team member that their behaviors are having a negative impact on the rest of the team

This list could go on and on. I’m sure you can remember the last difficult conversation you had and how it made you feel.

At the first thought of talking to the other person, we begin to feel dread and anxiety. Because of our aversion to these anxious feelings, we often talk ourselves out of having the conversation. Unfortunately, the longer we put it off, the greater the anxiety becomes. No matter how you spin it, delivering a difficult message feels like throwing a hand grenade, and as they say in the book, “There is no such thing as a diplomatic hand grenade.”

So, what’s the answer? By taking an in-depth look at what’s actually happening when we attempt to have these tough talks, we can become more aware of the opportunities that the hard conversations can create for all parties involved.

The book presents the idea that each difficult conversation is actually three conversations: What happened? What are we feeling? How are we identifying with this situation?

What Happened – the facts

Most difficult conversations involve disagreement about what has happened or what should happen. For example, a client thought a project was going to be completed within a certain timeframe and now it is well beyond the set deadline. The consultant says she informed the client that the deadline would have to be pushed out since project requirements had changed.

The truth is, these difficult conversations are not really about getting the facts right. According to the book’s authors, “They are about conflicting perceptions, interpretations and values. They are not about what a contract says but about what a contract means.”

Instead of arguing about what happened, the trick is to get to the real intention of a conversation. And the real intention (How can we move forward and get this project completed?) can remain invisible unless it is stated up front. Because we all act with mixed intentions from time to time, it can be difficult to understand what our intentions are, let alone express them. Taking some time to clarify our intentions before we start a difficult conversation is one way to mitigate the anxiety. Expressing your intention up front shows your listener that no matter how confusing the facts are, your intention is still the same. And, most important, you can avoid the blame that often results from making negative assumptions about the other person’s intentions.


Every difficult conversation asks and answers questions about feelings. “Engaging in a difficult conversation without talking about feelings is like staging an opera without music,” write Stone, Patton and Heen. They advise us to share our feelings in difficult conversations. If you’re under pressure to meet a deadline and it is making you feel stress, say so. If you’re having anxiety about discussing the challenging situation, name it. The other person will feel your anxiety anyway, and owning what’s happening to you in the moment will let the listener know that this message is as hard for you to deliver as it may be for him or her to hear it.

Hurt feelings are often at the heart of anxiety in a tough exchange with someone, and not speaking about them is a way of avoiding the real issue. Of course, sometimes we need to let sleeping dogs lie to not exacerbate a situation. More often than not, however, honesty about what’s happening to us in the moment and describing our feelings with clarity and sincerity is always a good practice.


For every difficult conversation, we have an internal debate with ourselves about what the situation means to us. For example, the client maybe be asking herself, “What did I do wrong here? I thought we were on the same page in terms of how this project would go. Did I not manage it correctly? How will my boss feel about my hiring him to do this in the first place?”

It’s likely that the contsultant is having his own internal dialogue stemming from their own identifications with the situation: “I’m responsible for getting this project done, and I’ve totally disappointed my client. I can’t afford to have him see me this way.”

If we weren’t having this internal dialogue, it’s unlikely that the conversation would be so difficult. That’s because we’ve identified with the situation and the stakes have been elevated with a challenge. We may begin to ask ourselves deep questions about who we are and what we are doing.

Try asking for a raise. Many questions start to come up as we attempt to put our identity on the line: “Will my boss think I’m worth it? Do I think I’m worth it? What happens if I get turned down?” No one likes to blow their own horn because we don’t want to seem self-centered. The irony is that it’s just as self-centered to focus our inner thoughts on what people think about us as it is to act from conceit. The focus is still all about us and the real message — the facts about our achievements — never gets delivered.

Your challenge

This week, spend some time thinking about the three aspects of difficult conversations. Spend time identifying your intention before you even start the conversation. What’s the result you’re trying to achieve? Don’t be afraid to express your feelings with sincerity and acknowledge that your listener is having his or her own set of feelings during the conversation. Try not to project your inner dialogue into the conversation. Understand the difference between how you see yourself delivering the message and the actual delivery by focusing on how the other person receives your message. Both identities are being challenged in the conversation so don’t be afraid to express how you see that.

As Stone, Patton and Heen advise, “Spend seven minutes and save seven hours later. The earlier you raise an issue, catch a misunderstanding or ask a question to clarify intentions, the sooner you clear it up and move on. The longer you let things fester, the bigger the problem becomes.” So, invest a few minutes and be skillful in delivering your message to save you and everyone in your organization time, money and a tremendous amount of frustration.

Have a good week!


© Copyright 2012 Pathfinders Coaching, Scout Search Inc., all rights reserved.

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