How to have a productive, difficult conversation

You've been having trouble telling an employee that his work is erratic. Every time you try to discuss his performance lately, he gets defensive and accuses you of picking on him unfairly. Yet now you are in crunch time on a critical project in which you have a great deal at stake. How can you point out your employee's behavior in a productive manner?

With great care-but not necessarily without some proficiency, argue a trio of trainers who have produced a new book titled "Difficult Conversations: How To Discuss What Matters Most." Doug Stone, Bruce Patton, and Sheila Heen grew this book out of their work as trainers at the Harvard Negotiation Project, where they discovered a number of techniques that helped people deal with the stickiest of situations.

Their book joins a handful of recent others and a growing number of consultants who are teaching the discipline of dialogue. Dialogue is a structured form of communication in which participants address the thinking behind their thinking in an attempt to decipher, and defuse, intractable habits of thinking and interaction. All of these tools are incorporating a growing body of research and practice into the oldest, and most important tool that managers have: conversation.

The theory behind these theories is similar. You can have more productive conversations by becoming more attentive to the process of the conversation than its mere surface matter. By recognizing the personal matters affecting how you "spin" data into opinions, and examining how your presentation is perceived by the other individual, you can use these uncomfortable times as opportunities to learn about yourself and your partner.

"These exercises are designed to get you to stop, listen, and figure out how to conduct a conversation in a manner that gets the objective facts out on the table and does not let personal baggage interfere with the process," says President Peter Gould of the Berwind Financial Group in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

Stone et al argue that all conversations are really three conversations rolled into one: the "what happened" conversation, the feelings conversation, and identity conversation. Failing to reveal the true substance at each of these levels causes conversations to degenerate into heated and fruitless battles.

The authors suggest that managers begin with the so-called "identity conversation," in which the players state what is at stake here for them-how their feelings are affecting their behavior. "When the conversation gets difficult, it is often because of what is going on with your own identity conversation," Stone says. They do so through first asking themselves what is really at stake in this conversation. How does the conversation reinforce feelings and images they have about themselves? This identity conversation can only be discerned with managers also address their emotional conversation by assessing the feelings that this exchange brings up for them.

Armed with this emotional and personal information, both members in a conversation can begin to develop shared meaning, and shared purpose. You still need to have an agenda for your conversation. Ask yourself what you hope to accomplish by having this conversation. Bringing in the emotion and identity conversation allows you to see problems as differences between each of your identity stories, and to begin to move away from blame, and towards a resolution that recognizes both your viewpoints as legitimate.

Stone and others suggest the following principles as methods of moving from conflict to cooperation:

Be Clear About Your Data

People often argue about the meaning of events because they start with very different notions of what actually happened. Conversations spin out of control as people react to their interpretation of the facts rather than the actual matter. That's why you can prevent conversations from blowing up early by agreeing on what really happened.

Acknowledge Your Own Feelings

It's not enough to recognize that the other person has an emotional and personal history affecting their spin; so do you. Until you feel comfortable making this factor visible, it will sabotage your communications, says Stone, who distinguishes between recognizing that you have feelings and actually airing them as a means of seeking mutual understanding. Sharing your feelings does not change your relationship or reduce your authority. Rather, says Heen, it creates greater authenticity within a structure.


Really listen. Listening means more than waiting for your turn to speak. Good listeners ask open-ended questions, actively solicit what the other has to say, and pay complete attention. Most importantly, they listen to themselves as well-being careful to note their own assessments as they arise, and suspending their judgements.

Reframe The Issue

As you begin to develop a new understanding of what happened and what the consequences were, re-state the problem together. That is, as you establish how your conversation is rooted in individual histories and stories you have an opportunity to essentially begin the conversation anew with each discovery.

Don't Avoid Disagreements

Explore their source. Conflict and disagreement are natural consequences of any honest exchange. Skilled conversationalists allow warring viewpoints to exist without making one right and one wrong. Rather, Every individual would like to believe that his or her opinion/assessment is the only correct one. Your goal should not be to choose which is the right one--but to examine how both of you have drawn such different conclusions. As Sheila Heen says, "Be honest about the struggle in a way that makes the conversation more genuine."

Seek Mutual Understanding

Just as "win-win" negotiations find agreeable resolution on both ends, productive conversations seek to find a satisfying end for both parties. This means that both parties should discuss what they are trying to accomplish with the conversation, and make an effort to accommodate both their purposes. Naturally, there are conversations-such as firing somebody, for example-that aren't pleasant no matter how skilled both parties are at their conversation. In those cases, says Stone, the best that you can do is handle the process skillfully: "You can set standards: listen, treat the other person with compassion, and be fair."


Difficult Conversations: How To Discuss What Matters Most, by Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton, and Sheila Heen (Viking.)
Aims to do for difficult conversations what Getting To Yes does for negotiations: provide a simple framework and set of exercises for people to change the tenor of their conversations from heated battles to learning opportunities.

How To Talk So Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk, by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish (Avon Books).
No, your employees are not your children, nor should you treat them as such. The value of this book is not to enfantalize your workers, but to see the absolute correlation between how well you listen and how well others listen to you. In simple, actionable chapters it shows how to surface and de-fuse otherwise dangerous feelings, often by simply recognizing, acknowledging, and in some cases, re-phrasing them when presented to you.

(This article appeared in Harvard Communication Update)

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