This Month’s Book Recommendation by Paula McCormack, VP
DIFFICULT CONVERSATIONS: How To Discuss What Matters Most
by Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton, Sheila Heen
Penguin Books; Illustrated edition (November 2, 2010) 352 pages
In all of our personal and professional lives, “sticky” situations abound. By that, I mean any time two or more people have an overt or obscure conflict which should be addressed. We’ve all learned that the right way to handle these incidents is through good communication. We’ve been advised, rightly so, not to be too timid or aggressive, but to assert our position confidently and respectfully while listening to the other side’s.
Easy, right? It makes sense, and is based upon sound communication theory and psychology. Then why is it still so hard to approach some of these conversations, whether we’re mildly uncomfortable or really stressed out about it? Worse still, why don’t they run as smoothly as they’re supposed to?
The authors, all associated with the Harvard Negotiation Project, are experts in illuminating why we cringe, what’s really at stake, and most importantly providing a framework for creating conversations with a different angle. They call them “learning conversations”, as participants are encouraged to bring curiosity to the interaction, as opposed to our typical defensive stance. Of course, this is greatly simplified, but it is essentially the difference between our usual approach (beginning with one side’s complaint about the other) and this structure. The emphasis is not so much on what we do, as what we THINK.. As the authors state, “Regardless of context, the things that make difficult conversations difficult and the errors in thinking and acting that compound those difficulties, are the same. We all share the same fears and fall into the same few traps.” From this comes a rich array of detailed methods that can be put to use in any number of circumstances. The key, to me, is putting judgments and pre-conceptions aside (with the emotions that come from them), and really being interested in understanding what the other person is thinking, feeling and intending. That’s where the element of curiosity comes in, as opposed to holding self-righteous assumptions.
Some problems don’t resolve well, for many reasons that impede healthy interactions among people. But the work that is represented in this highly practical little book gives us a better chance to be successful in resolving disputes or bringing up difficult topics for discussion. It’s an excellent reference to be used as often as needed, and reviewed just as frequently to keep up the skills.