difficult conversations

A few years back, I read Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most by Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton, and Sheila Heen of the Harvard Negotiation Project. Given the important, difficult conversations that have been taking place recently in the children’s literature world (and elsewhere), I thought it was worth revisiting my notes on the book (as well as this helpful guide). Paraphrasing and sharing does not make me an expert on this—I’m learning just as much as the next person. But I do think it is important to remember that this discourse is healthy and necessary.

The authors posit that people tend to make three big errors when having difficult conversations:

  1. Assuming you know everything
  2. Hiding your own feelings OR getting so emotional you let your feelings loose in ways you later regret
  3. Acting as if your identity/lens is separate from the issue at hand

Stone says that they key to engaging in difficult conversations is to “Shift your thinking from I need to explain myself or deliver a message to I need to listen and learn…

Stone also provides tips, in the form of 5 steps, for tackling tough conversations:

Step 1 is to reflect on the “3 conversations” that actually occur when discussing something difficult. The first is what happened to prompt the discussion, the second is what feelings are evoked relating to the topic, and the third is how one’s identity effects reactions and responses. Thinking about all of these ideas will inform how you engage and interact with the other person.

Step 2 is to consider your purposes for engaging and decide whether the conversation is worth having. Questions to reflect on include:
What do you hope to accomplish by having this conversation?”  and
“Do you need to raise the issue to achieve your purpose?”

Step 3 is to approach the issue “as if a third, neutral person is looking on.” The idea is to promote collaborative problem solving by trying to see the two viewpoints as objectively as possible and consider the differences between them.

Step 4 is to explore both stories. Acknowledge the other person’s feelings and perspectives while sharing your own. Ask questions, listen, and paraphrase to assure understanding. Be open-minded and willing to reframe your assumptions as you learn more.

Step 5 is to work together to develop solutions. Stone reminds readers that one-way relationships rarely last. Keep communication open and develop strategies for moving forward together.

Other advice in the book includes using the word “and” to highlight how two truths can coexist. (For example, I find this book beautiful AND I find it problematic.) Sometimes scheduling a conversation for a later time/date is helpful. (I think social media has made this challenging –perhaps some of these conversations need to be prompted on social media but continued on the phone or face-to-face.) The book shares that “people are most likely to change when they don’t HAVE to,” and that statements like “I feel” and “to me” and “I believe” are a big deal (as they show that you aren’t rushing to judgment).

To me (see what I did there?), 🙂 the big takeaway is that these conversations are not easy: they take commitment and courage. In them, we are always listening, evaluating our stances, shifting perspectives, and growing. There is rarely a single “right” answer. But with practice, these difficult conversations can become second nature. As I say to my students, practice makes better.

I bought Stone and Heen’s newest book, Thanks for the Feedback, but haven’t had a chance to read it yet. If you’ve read these books or anything similar, I’d love to hear your ideas.


2 thoughts on “difficult conversations

  1. What a wonderful response. I have been reading extensively on the issues that have prompted these difficult conversations, and I think your input is timely, important, and well-put. Thank you for what you’ve offered here.

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