Book Review: Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most by Douglas Stone

Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters MostDifficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most by Douglas Stone

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Effective communication is important in daily life and in formal negotiations, yet conflict and therefore difficult conversations, is a normal part of human experience. For this reason, the need to learn successful communication skills so that we can better deal with the difficult conversations, which we all sometimes need to face, is quite clear. Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss what Matters Most (Stone, Patton & Heen, 2010) is the result of years of work at the Harvard Negotiation Project, whose mission is to improve the theory and practice of conflict resolution and negotiation. In this text, the authors have explored those things that make certain types of conversations difficult, why folks tend to avoid these difficult conversations, and why they sometimes tend to handle them poorly. Additionally, Stone, Patton and Heen have provided a communication method, a particular conversational style, to be used as a guide in order to develop one’s own conversation style in a way that improves one’s opportunity of obtaining better outcomes from difficult conversations. This book is effective in making conflict resolution theory real to its readers. The authors do this by examining the structure of and then decoding difficult conversations, they help readers to understand how to reposition their ‘stance’ to be more open, and they also offer metaphors and real-life examples to demonstrate clearly, the results of their research. This book is written in an easy-going conversational style that makes it simple for readers to follow and understand the elements of conflict negotiation theory that the authors share.

Difficult Conversations is a straightforward guide that can be used for gaining the skills that are crucial in order to better deal with difficult conversations, such as asking for a raise, terminating an employee, or discussing family conflicts. The intent of the authors was twofold. It was, on the one hand, to help individuals find a way to break through difficult relationship dilemmas, while on the other hand, it was to fill a broader organizational need for change and adaptation that is an intrinsic component of an ever increasingly competitive, technologically advanced, and globalized world. The roadmap that these authors used combines a way of thinking about the particular conflict issues with a certain manner of speaking and listening, or conversational style. The goal of this conversation style is that we may initially understand, to a greater degree than before, the complex nature of conflict, and then because of this we will be better positioned to begin a difficult conversation. Additionally, it is the authors’ intent that we learn how to do this while minimizing stress. It is also their purpose that we learn how to keep the conversation constructive and focused on effective outcomes that, many times, lead to real problem solving. The authors have described how these conflict resolution techniques may be effectively applied to both interpersonal relationships and how they may also be applied at an organizational level in order to shape improved difficult conversations.

One way that Stone, et al. (2010), make real the results of their research on the theories and practice of conflict resolution and negotiation is that they have ‘decoded’ the structure of difficult conversations, revealing that there is more to a difficult conversation than what one says and what one hears. This concept is explained as a difficult conversation actually being three separate conversations that take place simultaneously. They describe the ‘what happened’ conversation as one that involves disagreement between parties and as one that concerns what events took place. The feelings conversation is about uncovering and acknowledging the emotions of each party, while the identity conversation is an internal dialogue concerning what one wishes to believe, and what one wishes to present about himself/herself to others. In addition to the three conversations, the authors explain, there are also three stories running concurrently with these conversations. There is one story (and perspective) for each participant, plus a neutral story that sees and understands from a neutral point of view. Each of these stories contains its own version of the ‘what happened’ conversation, the feelings conversation, and the identity conversation. Examining the structure of a conflict reveals the many perspectives, the identity issues, and the need to have one’s feelings acknowledged. It also reveals that all of this is tied to each point of view. Finally, when all of these elements and perspectives are combined together, this makes up a more complete picture and understanding of reality than what one might otherwise consider without having applied the practice of conflict resolution methods. Understanding the structure of a difficult conversation helps one to develop a more neutral and realistic view of a difficult communication so that he or she may enter such a conversation in such a way that it has a better chance of being well received.

A second way that Stone, et al. (2010), make real conflict negotiation theory is by the use of metaphors. For instance, in their introduction to the book, they compared a difficult conversation to war, when they wrote that there is “no way to throw a hand grenade with tact or to outrun the consequences (p. xxx).” The metaphor they used paints a violent image of the conflicts that can sometimes arise from difficult conversations. This assists the readers to appreciate that how they choose to use their words is critically important. The metaphor helps readers to better realize that if used ineffectively, words might be construed as an attack.

Additionally, Stone, et al., also explain that in order to prevent a message from being interpreted as an attack, one can consider, and possibly adjust, one’s negotiation stance. They present having a difficult conversation as, not so much one of ‘delivering a message’, but instead as one in which folks are engaged in a ‘learning conversation’ instead. They illustrate the fundamentals of the learning conversation: the need to know the purpose for entering the conversation; the reasons why one should enter the conversation from a neutral perspective; the value of using good listening skills; the importance of expressing oneself clearly; and finally, the goal of problem solving. They sometimes teach methods that at first seem counter-intuitive, such as, that in order to be heard, one must first learn to listen well and practice good listening skills oneself, then the other party is more likely to respond by listening in return. They show us that by entering a conversation with curiosity and the intention to learn about the other party we may find that their perspective is real and perhaps even valid, too.

Lastly, there are many real-life examples of the communication methods that Stone, et al., suggest. For example, instead of entering a conversation from one’s own (limited and judgmental) perspective, that begs a return defense such as, “Listen, Michael, say what you will, but the problem on that financial brochure was that after all the work I did, you treated me badly, and you know it!” one could instead use an approach that comes from a more inclusive third, or neutral perspective, such as, “Michael, I’ve been thinking a lot about what happened between each of us on the financial brochure. I found the experience frustrating, and I suspect you did as well (Stone, et al., 2010, p. 221).” It is clear that the second example has the potential to be much more effective because it is much less confrontational. Real life examples such as these allow the reader to witness the theory in action as a real-life dialogue. They can even perhaps internalize their own reactions to such statements and ‘feel’ which might be more effective.

In all of these ways, the authors bring to life the theory of conflict resolution and negotiation and make the practice real for their readers. They have decoded the structure of a difficult conversation, and by the use of metaphors and real-life examples, they help readers to understand exactly why and how they should enter a difficult conversation as though it were a learning conversation. The result is that the reader is able to see how communication is much more than just delivering and receiving messages, because they can then see how it also consists of learning about and relating to one another in a more real and authentic way, which then leads to collaborative problem-solving.

I am grateful to these authors for making their research so accessible in an easy to read format that provides real life examples that bring conflict resolution and negotiation theory to life in a truly meaningful way. As a result of reading Difficult Conversations, I have begun to notice a transformation in my own thought process. This is altering the ways in which I think about others, and myself and this has changed the ways in which I interact with others, too. For example, I no longer assume that because I know that I am right, and because ‘their’ view is different from mine, therefore, they must be wrong. Instead, I am able to take an ‘and stance’ and by doing this I can see how both perspectives theirs and mine, may have validity. I can also now see the difference between the intent of a message sent and the impact of a message received. Therefore I am less likely to assume that I know what another’s intent is, based solely on the impact that I happen to feel. I now take all of this new knowledge into account when I deal with others. I have begun to effectively use this knowledge in my own interpersonal relations at home and at work to diffuse potentially difficult and stressful conversations. I have become more effective at maintaining a constructive conversation that is focused on effective outcomes, and I have, as a result, become a better problem-solver. It is clear that the authors have been very effective in meeting their goal of offering a way to help both individuals and organizations by offering them a method that breaks though difficult relationship dilemmas. For that, I am truly thankful.

Stone, D., & Patton, B. (2010). Difficult conversations: How to discuss what matters most. Penguin.

View all my reviews

© Nancy Babbitt and Just Desserts Blog, 2013-2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Nancy Babbitt and Just Desserts Blog with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.


One thought on “Book Review: Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most by Douglas Stone

  1. A book I received as a gift during a difficult time in my life that I am currently reading and hope will help me learn how to communicate more effectively in both my personal relationships as well as in my future work relationships

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s