Book Review - Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most (1999)

Published February 11, 2003

In the Knowing the Law column in the last issue of Coaches Report , we observed that the most pressing issue that coaches appear to be facing today are related to their communications, conflicts and negotiations with others. If this observation is accurate, then this is a must-read book for all coaches.

Written by the second generation of researchers at the Harvard Negotiation Project, this book offers practical advice on managing the difficult conversations we have every day, whether they are with our teenage children, our biggest client, our boss or our athletes. Featured on Oprah and listed on the New York Times business bestseller list, this book could be described as a 'how to handbook' for conducting conversations.

Personally, I am not a big fan of self-help books (I have shied away from titles such as "Emotional Intelligence", the "Seven Habits of Highly Effective People" or anything to do with "Chicken Soup for [Someone's] Soul") but this book intrigued me. I had been reading about and practicing negotiation skills and saw clearly that at the heart of these skills was conversation. I was also learning about the subtleties of 'power' in negotiation and thought that this book could help me to be more powerful as a negotiator.

In almost all negotiations, one party is inherently more powerful than the other because they occupy a position of relatively greater strength. This is because, for a variety of reasons, they can simply walk away from the negotiation. For example, the employer is always more powerful than the employee (other employees can be recruited), and the corporate sponsor is always more powerful than the team (other teams would be happy to take the money). It is rare for a coach to find himself in a position of negotiating strength. The good part, though, is that this lack of 'substantive' strength can be corrected through 'process' strength. In other words, the person who is skilled in the techniques of principled negotiation may often prevail as the powerful side in a negotiation, even though the other side inhabits an inherently more powerful position.

At the core of every good negotiator is a strong communicator, and this is where the book Difficult Conversations comes in. We all have conversations that we dread and find unpleasant, and many of us go to lengths to avoid these conversations, which just makes the situation worse. This book proposes the concept of the 'learning conversation' as a way to help us be more effective and satisfied with our conversations, and as a way to reduce the anxiety that we all internalize when we face the prospect of a difficult conversation. Through extensive research at Harvard University , the authors have concluded that the things that make a difficult conversation difficult, and the errors in thinking and acting that compound those difficulties, are the same regardless of the nature of the dispute, the relationship between the parties or the context of the problem.

A few of the key ideas that I learned from this book and that I have been able to put into practice immediately in my own conversations are these. First, every conversation that we have is really three conversations. The first of these is the what happened conversation, which is fairly factual. The second conversation is the feelings conversation - often this is the conversation that we decode between the lines of spoken words. Feelings are a part of every conversation and it is our unspoken feelings that are at the root of many of our spoken words. The third conversation is the identity conversation. This is the silent conversation that we're having with ourselves as we try to talk about what happened, juggle what we're feeling and decipher what the other person is feeling. The identity conversation usually revolves around issues of self-esteem, self-image and worthiness.

It is not surprising that important conversations become difficult when three different conversations are going on and battling for our attention. Over half of this book is devoted to helping readers to understand these three conversations, and learn techniques to disentangle them and to use them effectively to create a learning conversation. For example, a conversation can be more productive if we don't focus on 'what happened' but rather on 'what we're both feeling' about what happened. Also, a difficult conversation is often best approached from the perspective of the 'third story', meaning not what I think happened or what I'm feeling, or what you think happened or what you're feeling, but the differences between our respective feelings about what happened.

The second idea that I have successfully implemented is the shift from 'blame' to 'contribution'. The issue at the heart of a difficult conversation is rarely the fault of one person. Usually, each person has contributed something. For example, there might be a natural tendency to blame the assistant coach for failing to perform a certain task satisfactorily, but it is likely that the head coach contributed to the problem by not adequately explaining the task, by not ensuring that the assistant had the necessary resources, or by not making it clear what standard of performance she was expecting.

A learning conversation occurs when the parties are able to acknowledge their respective contributions to the problem. Blame is a loaded word, while contribution is less so. It is far easier to acknowledge a contribution to a problem than to accept blame or fault for it.

Difficult Conversations uses examples and scenarios abundantly. While none of them comes from sport they all resonate strongly for our own personal and professional relationships. The book concludes with a succinct checklist of five steps for navigating the difficult conversation: prepare for the walk through the three conversations; check your purposes to decide whether to pursue the issue (there are some circumstances where you shouldn't embark on the difficult conversation); open with the third story (where the third story is the difference between your story and the other person's story); then reframe to explore your story and theirs; and finally, problem-solve together.

This book has an unusual but attractive feature - the table of contents is at the end, not at the beginning. I found this to be far more helpful as a device to knit the book together when it was presented to me after I had read the book. If I had examined the table of contents first, I might have been overwhelmed at what lay ahead.

Tom Peters, management guru and author of In Search of Excellence , describes Difficult Conversations as a brilliant exception in the line of self-help books, and as a book he has read more than once and actually uses. I can say the same - in the few months since I first read this book, it has changed how I approach conversations with my clients, my colleagues at the Centre for Sport and Law, and my family. I recommend this book to everyone whose life involves talking with others.

Originally published: Coaches Report (2003) Vol. 10(1)

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