Difficult Conversations 

Portfolio Publishers

What is  A Difficult Conversation?

  • Anything you find it hard to talk about due to fear of the consequences — including how you will feel
  • A dilemma: an exchange about a problem that we’d like to avoid and fear confronting might make worse
  • A normal part of life
Three people, man arguing with woman while another man listens
There are all kinds of difficult conversations

Why do we call it ‘difficult’?

  • Because we’d rather not have the conversation
  • We see little chance of success
  • We forecast strong odds of discomfort
  • The situation is a dilemma: if I don’t have the conversation, I’m unhappy, but if I do have it I may be very unhappy
  • And part of that unhappiness may stem from a sense that one of the consequences of having the conversation will be the displeasure of the other person, the potential disruption or even disconnection of that relationship
We talk past each other, yell past each other, shout past each other, or we stay silent seething

Each Difficult Conversation Is Really Three Conversations

1. “What Happened?” Conversation

2.Feelings Conversation

3.Identity Conversation

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Intent does NOT automatically equal impact in a conversation

What I’m thinking happened, what I’m feeling, how I’m sensing my identity is affected is not necessarily connected to the intent of the other person.

Likewise, the impact upon you of the words uttered, tome employed, the facial reactions, the body language, etc. of your conversation ‘partner’ is UNLIKELY to be connected to the intent of that other person.

You have to unpeel both their intent and the impact that you had upon them in the interaction.

That is why you have to employ the tool of three conversations

Three Conversations Unpacked

This is not to let the other person off the hook…

It’s to get you both off the hook


How do we do that?

Work your way down to how words impact identity

Decoding the Structure of Difficult Conversations – all difficult conversations share a common structure. Understanding the structure is essential to improving hoe you handle your most challenging conversations.

There’s More Here Than Meets the Ear – we need to understand not only what is said, but what is not said. We need to understand what people are thinking and feeling but not saying to each other. The gap between what you are thinking ant you are saying s part of what makes a conversation difficult.

“What Happened?” Conversation – disagreement about what happened.

Feelings Conversation – each conversation asks and answers questions about feeling. Even if they are not addressed, they leak in.

Identity Conversation – the conversation we each have with ourselves about what the situation means to us. This determines if we are off-center and anxious or if we feel “balanced”.

1.“What Happened?” Conversation

Kassiche Physik Newton pendel Quellseite (1999): https://www.seelengrund.de/2003/HTMLJeDi/Text/weltbild.htm

A Buddhist Sutra I learned as a young man states that ‘the law of cause and effect is forever’, which quantum physics aside for a moment is true. Our read of what constituted a cause of a particular event and our belief of what the effect of that event ended up being for ourselves and others necessarily arises from a certain subjectivity. In other words, what you think is a cause might not be what I think is a cause of what just happened between the two of us. And even the determination of ‘what just happened’ might vary significantly. I think we just had a good exchange of views. You’re ticked off and feeling as if you just subjected to a condescending tongue lashing.

by Simon Brown

2.Feelings Conversation

Trying to do the Difficult Conversation without feelings is like trying to have an opera without music

Understanding feelings, talking about feelings, and managing feelings are among the greatest challenges of being human

Talking about feelings is a skill that can be learned.

Yup, difficult conversations will evoke old frowny face

Feelings Matter: They Are Often at the Heart of Difficult Conversations. Our failure to acknowledge and discuss feelings derails a startling number of difficult conversations. And the inability to deal openly and well with feelings can undermine the quality and health of our relationships.

We Try to Frame Feelings Out of the Problem. Solving problems seems easier than talking about emotions. The problem is that when feelings are at the heart of what’s going on, they are the business at hand and ignoring them is nearly impossible. In many difficult conversations, it is really only at the level of feelings that the problem can be addressed.

Unexpressed Feelings Can Leak into the Conversation- they can alter your affect and tone of voice. They express themselves through your body language or facial expressions.

Unexpressed Feelings Can Burst into the Conversation- for some people, the problem is not that they are unable to express feelings, but they are unable not to.

Unexpressed Feelings Make It Difficult to Listen – good listening requires an open and honest curiosity about the other person. Buried emotions draw the spotlight back to us. It’s hard to hear someone when we are feeling unheard. Our listening ability often increases remarkably once we have expressed our own strong feelings.

Unexpressed Feelings Take a Toll on Our Self-Esteem and Relationships – By keeping your feelings out of the relationship you are keeping an important part of yourself out of the relationship.

A Way Out of the Feelings Bind

If you are able to share your feelings with skill, you can avoid many of the potential costs associated with expressing feelings and even reap some unexpected benefits.

First you need to sort out just what your feelings are; second, you need to negotiate with your feelings; and third, you need to share your actual feelings, not attributions or judgments about the other person.

Finding Your Feelings: Learn Where Feelings Hide

When it comes to understanding our own emotions, most of us are lost.

SadWoman PaulMoullet 33AvenueDeMiremont-Geneva RomanDeckert12032021.jpg

Accept That Feelings Are Normal and Natural

Recognize: That Good People Can Have Bad Feelings

Learn That Your Feelings Are as Important as Theirs – when you are more concerned about others’ feelings than your own, you teach others to ignore your feelings too.

Beware: One of the reasons you haven’t raised the issue is that you don’t want to jeopardize the relationship. Yet by not raising it, the resentment you feel will grow and slowly erode the relationship anyway.

Find the Bundle of Feelings Behind the Simple Labels – in many cases we are blinded to the complexity of our feelings by one strong feeling which trumps all the others.

Don’t Treat Feelings as Gospel: Negotiate with Them

Before saying what you are feeling, negotiate with your feelings: feelings are formed in response to our thoughts, and the route to changing feelings is through altering your thinking.

Don’t Vent: Describe Feelings Carefully

1. Frame Feelings Back into the Problem – If feelings are the real issue, then feelings should be addressed.

2. Express the Full Spectrum of Your Feelings

3. Don’t Evaluate – Just Share – getting everyone’s feelings on the table, heard and acknowledged, is essential before you can begin to sort them through.

Express Your Feelings Without Judging, Attributing, or Blaming

Don’t Monopolize: Both Sides Can Have” Strong Feelings at the Same Time

An Easy Reminder: Say “I Feel. . . .” this keeps the focus on feelings.

Inner child???

3.Identity Conversation

The identity conversation is about what I am saying to myself about me.

Something beyond the apparent substance of the conversation is at stake for you.

Keeping Your Balance: as you begin to sense the implications of the conversation for your self-image, you may begin to lose your balance.

What can we do on ‘The Identity‘ level? Ground Yours: Ask yourself What’s at Stake

¢Difficult Conversations Threaten Our Identity:

¢Our anxiety results not just from facing the other person, but having to face ourselves

¢Three Core Identity issues seem particularly common, and often underlie what concerns us most during difficult conversations.

1.Am I Competent?

2.Am I a Good Person?

3.Am I Worthy of Love?

Just being human

An Identity Quake Can Knock Us Off Balance and even cause us to react physically

There’s No Quick Fix- Grappling with identity issues is what life and growth are all about, and no amount of love or accomplishment or skill can insulate you from these challenges. You can improve your ability to recognize and cope with identity issues when they hit. Thinking clearly and honestly about who you are can help reduce your anxiety level during the conversation and significantly strengthen your foundation in its aftermath.

And there’s much more to this tool that won’t fit on this webpage…

T.J. Elliott

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Sheila Heen and others explain the tool

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Sheila on Oprah!!! Click here

Our Lecture Videos

Here are the video snippets of our lecture on the subject

What is a difficult conversation?

The USUAL model of our difficult interactions

Level 1: Intent and impact

Level 2: Confronting Emotions

Level 3: Deconstructing Identity Damage

Moving Ahead: Creating a Learning Conversation


Adobe PDF file of the 2015 lecture is here