A 5-Step Guide to Having a Difficult Conversation

What is a Difficult Conversation?

This is anything you find hard to talk about. We often get into a dilemma and ask ourselves: should I avoid or confront? How can we best deal with having hard talks with our business colleagues, friends and even loved ones? We as human beings struggle with this all the time- often we want to deliver a helpful message, but it gets derailed, our emotional triggers set in, and we have miscommunication.

Conflict resolution experts Stone, Patton and Heen remind us that delivering a difficult message is like throwing a hand grenade. "To get out of the hand grenade business is it important to turn the damaging battle of warring messages into the more constructive approach – a learning conversation (Stone et.al: 1999).

Below is a *5 Step Guide that might help you when you are faced with a difficult conversation.

Step 1: Figure Out the Problem

Focus on Three Conversations - Clarifying the Conflict.

1)    What is My and the Other’s Story: Understanding!

  • How has the story has impacted you and others?
  • Figure out any intentions from all players involved.
  • Determine the contributors to the problem - describe own behavior, feelings and attribution patterns.

2)    The Feelings Conversation: Feelings are at the heart of the situation.

  • Understand our bundle of emotions – attributions and judgements.
  • Explore each player’s emotional footprint.
  • Determine needs to change to feel differently in future.

3)    The Identity Conversation:

  • Looking inward and figuring out what is at stake.
  • How to restore sense of identity?
  • Finding your footing to keep balanced and be better grounded

 Step 2: Shift to a Learning Stance

1)     Check Your Purposes:

  • What do you hope to accomplish by having this conversation?
  • Shift your stance to support learning, sharing, and problem-solving.

2)     Decide Whether to Raise the Issue:

  • Is this the best way to address the issue and achieve your purposes?
  • Is the issue really embedded in your Identity Conversation?
  • Can you affect the problem by changing your contributions?
  • If you don’t raise it, what can you do to help yourself let go?

Step 3: Start from the Third Story

1)     Describe the problem as the difference between your stories. Include both viewpoints as a legitimate part of the discussion.

2)     Share your purposes.

3)     Invite them to join you as a partnering sorting out the situation together.

Step 4: Explore Their Story and Yours

1)     Listen to understand their perspective on what happened.

2)     Ask questions and acknowledge the feelings behind the arguments and accusations.

3)     Paraphrase to see if you’ve got it and try to unravel how the two of you got to this place.

4)     Share your own viewpoint, your past experiences, intentions, feelings.

5)     Reframe, reframe and reframe to keep on track and lead conversation. From truth to perceptions; blame to contribution; accusations to feelings.

Step 5: Problem-Solving

1)     Invent options that meet each side’s most important concerns and interests.

2)     Look to standards for what should happen. Keep in mind the standard of mutual caretaking of accommodation and reciprocation.

3)     Consider alternatives if you can’t come to a mutual agreement.

4)     Willingness to accept consequences. Relationships that always go one way rarely last.

5)     Talk about how to keep communication open as you go forward and taking time into consideration.

*This is adapted from the renowned book “Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most” by Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton & Sheila Heen; 1999. Penguin Books.