Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton, and Sheila Heen, authors of Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most, teach at the Harvard Law School and work with the Harvard Negotiation Project, the group responsible for the international bestseller Getting to Yes (1981). They believe that behind every difficult conversation are issues of blame, unexpressed feelings, and perceived threats to our identity or self-image. In this helpful and healing work, the authors present ways "to turn the damaging battle of warring messages into the more constructive approach we call a learning conversation," as exemplified by the following conversation plan.
A Difficult Conversations Checklist
Step 1: Prepare by Walking Through the Three Conversations
1. Sort out What Happened.
- Where does your story come from (information, past experiences, rules)? Theirs?
- What impact has this situation had on you? What might their intentions have been?
- What have you each contributed to the problem?
2. Understand Emotions.
- Explore your emotional footprint, and the bundle of emotions you experience.
3. Ground Your Identity.
- What’s at stake for you about you? What do you need to accept to be better grounded?
Step 2: Check Your Purposes and Decide Whether to Raise the Issue
- Purposes: What do you hope to accomplish by having this conversation? Shift your stance to support learning, sharing, and problem-solving.
- Deciding: 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
- Describe the problem as the difference between your stories. Include both viewpoints as a legitimate part of the discussion.
- Share your purposes.
- Invite them to join you as a partner in sorting out the situation together.
Step 4: Explore Their Story and Yours
- Listen to understand their perspective on what happened. Ask questions. Acknowledge the feelings behind the arguments and accusations. Paraphrase to see if you’ve got it. Try to unravel how the two of you got to this place.
- Share your own viewpoint, your past experiences, intentions, feelings.
- Reframe, reframe, reframe to keep on track. From truth to perceptions, blame to contribution, accusations to feelings, and so on.
Step 5: Problem-Solving
- Invent options that meet each side’s most important concerns and interests.
- Look to standards for what should happen. Keep in mind the standard of mutual caretaking; relationships that always go one way rarely last.
- Talk about how to keep communication open as you go forward.