Difficult Conversations (book report)
A while ago I read Difficult Conversations (1999), written by Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton, and Sheila Heen. I had hoped it would help me to have more productive negotiations and reduce the misunderstandings and strife that seems ubiquitous in my life. What I found was that I am already following most of the authors’ advice very well and that this advice is utterly useless unless all parties involved in the conversation are doing it.
The basic ideas in the book are as follows:
One: None of us knows all the relevant facts and we each bring our own baggage to every situation. Oftentimes, the conflict is not between two opposing viewpoints, but between two incomplete and complimentary viewpoints. The most important thing we can do is listen. To get to the bottom of things, have a “learning conversation.”
Two: Most people are too quick to assign harmful intent to another’s actions or words. In most cases, people do not intend to hurt us. Instead, they have made a mistake or else we have misunderstood. Give everyone the benefit of the doubt.
Three: Problems exist in a complex matrix of causation. In order to best understand the source of problems and ensure they do not happen again, one has to look at every contributing action (and inaction). It is counterproductive to assign blame too soon. Much of the time, there is no reason to assign blame ever.
Four: It is not enough that everyone has the opportunity to tell their version of events; they must also express their feelings and have them acknowledged.
Five: It is not enough to acknowledge everyone’s feelings about the events in question, they must also have reassurance that how they see themselves will remain unchanged. For example, one is more likely to admit to a mistake when told that even really good employees such as themselves make mistakes sometimes.
All of this sounds pretty good and I have done all this instinctively for much of my life. Unfortunately, no one else does it and so I inevitably lose my patience and give people what they want when they have made it abundantly clear that all they want to do is fight.
Also, I have some concerns about the details:
There are example conversations throughout the book of what to say and what not to say. Of course, the ones where the protagonist says the “right” thing always work out because the authors control both sides of these imaginary conversations. They tell what to avoid saying to avoid misunderstanding, but what they tell us to say instead could also lead to misunderstanding! I can imagine things going wrong in so many ways. My experience is that humans are endlessly clever at distorting my obvious meanings into truly absurd caricatures of what I said.
The authors say to repeat back what someone has said, paraphrasing it, so that they can correct you if you have misunderstood, but some of the examples they use can also sound like attacks – and they can become frustrated if you paraphrase it wrong. The authors also say that expressing our feelings without passing judgment on the other person will avoid putting them on defense, but I know that expressing feelings alone can still put someone on defense.
Speaking of feelings, if I ever responded to a complaint by talking about the complainer’s feelings – as the authors coach us to do in their imaginary example conversations – nine times out of ten the other person would think I was changing the subject. If anyone did it to me, I would think the same, and I would then think I was being accused of being oversensitive. Don’t you dare tell me I sound frustrated when the real issue is your lousy service! Just listen to my complaint and then fix the problem! If I am misjudging the situation, then you may certainly enlighten me with objective facts; I will listen. Just don’t change the subject by talking about my feelings!
The authors suggest asking open questions rather than narrow ones in order to get more information. They have obviously never tested this on real humans. Asking a question that is too vague will get no meaningful response whatsoever. The other person won’t know where to begin. As far as they are concerned, their position is already obvious; that’s why the conversation is difficult! By asking very specific questions, it gives them information about why I’m not seeing it the way they do. That way they can correct me.
Furthermore, the examples of open questions they suggest to use in chapter twelve sound a lot like the examples of “easing-in” they told us not to engage in in chapter ten. Easing-in is when someone asks a question in order to make a point, often an accusation or a judgment. The authors claim it comes across as an attempt to hide the intent to accuse. However, I have always seen the intent as so obvious that I never thought there was any attempt to hide anything.
Finally, the authors suggest not to defend ourselves too soon in the conversation. I worry that my silence will be seen as tacit admission of guilt. While rare, this has happened to me before.
I only wish the real world were as easy as the difficult conversations in this book.
Charting Possibilities is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.