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Difficult Conversations

Difficult conversation are conversation where things are at stake, where we know we will disagree with the other, where strong feelings are involved. For instance, asking for a raise, or ending a relationship. These are conversations which prevents us from sleeping, because we are thinking and thinking again about them before they happend. This book tries to address how to better handle these conversations, the mistakes that we often do in. The main book assumption is that there are three parallel conversations. One about the facts, one about the feelings, one about the identity, and that all need to be addressed during the oral conversation.

Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton, Sheila Heen.


This book is about “Difficult Conversation”, i.e. conversation which are not easy to conduce because something are at stakes, or may lead to arguments.

The hypothesis of this book is that behind the verbal conversation, there are three parallel conversations:

In such conversation, there is an asymmetry between the two persons: what they know, how they interpret messages, values, feelings, and interests. If everyone had access to the same information, the conversation wouldn’t be difficult.

This book aims to help at handling such kind of conversation. However, it cannot be taken as a “manual”: there is no good recipe that fits all.

I will list the points that caught my attention in this book.


These situation are exemples of difficult conversations:

Whatever how nice we have, lucky or whatever, we will have to deal with these conversation at some point. Having those conversation is an healthy sign, otherwise it would be a dictatorship.

As companies are less and less vertical, there are more and more people on the same level of decision, which increases the chances of conflict.

With internet and new technologies, prices of all business have been cut down. There is no more differentiating factors between two companies providing a similar product. Winning the contract is achieved with influential skills.

The author warns that after reading it, difficult conversations would still be difficult and challenging. However, it allows to become better at handling them, reducing fear of conflict and anxiety.

A Difficult Conversation is Anything you Find it Hard to Talk About

Some conversation are difficult because:

The outcome of these conversation is incertain. We fear them, find it unpleasant, and try to avoid them. We often get the dilemma which prevents from sleeping “should I raise the issue, or should I wait or keep for myself ?” As Schrodinger’s cat, you never know until you try.

The problem

Sort Out the Three Conversation

There is what is said with words, and what is not said. We often talk about facts, but we rarely talk about our feelings and the way we think. Feelings because its often something we keep private, and thinking because we some reasoning are obvious for us.

The three types of conversation are:

  1. About the fact, “What happened ?”: who did the mistakes ? Does the work needs to be done again ? Who was first ?
  2. About the feelings: Angry ? hurt ? Humiliated ? Are my feelings appropriated ?
  3. About the identity: What it means to us, are we a “good” or a “bad” person, lovable ? It is the image we have of ourselves and the one we project. Compared to feelings, identity is a long-term characteristic.

What we can and can’t change

Difficult conversation will always happen in your life. We can improve the way we deal with them, by stopping thinking that the other knows:

What happened ?

We have to make the distinction between truth, perception, interpretation and values. The train left at 8am, that’s a fact. However, Jesus vs Boudha, this is a question of values.

We can all be right at the same time while disagreeing at the same time.

Difficult conversation are never about facts, but always about perception, interpretation and values. We need to talk about all of these points to understand the other.

While we don’t talk enough about these things, we wrongly assume that we know what was the intention of the person.

We often take shortcuts by trying to find a culprit to blame. Most of the time, the fault/contribution is shared by several person. Finding the one to blame, the most involved distracts us from understanding why it went wrong.


In these conversations, we need to manage strong feelings, like anger, being hurt or sorry. If no strong feeling are involved, that means that you don’t care and that’s not a difficult conversation.


Compared to feelings which are more instantaneous, identity is a long-term view of ourselves:

Before, during, and after, it is what I am saying to myself.

Shift to a Learning Stance

Moving to a Learning Conversation

One way of better handling difficult conversation is to fill the information gap by exchanging informations about what you know but the other don’t. The author call it the learning conversation, where we learn about facts, values, reasoning that the other has. This allows everyone to express himself, so no one would regret, remorse to not having said things.

Why we argue, and Why it Doesn’t Help

There is often a paradox: We think they are the problem while they think we are the problem. We may say they are:

We often minimize the way we contributed to the problem, and treat ourselve as a first class citizen. We may mask the information where we are not to our advantage. From our perspective, everything looks fine (i.e. we are not responsible). However, it collides with the other’s story, who doesn’t have the same clues.

The difficult conversation may stop at some point because the other has no time for that, or is sick of it or threaten physically. Even if he retracts, it doesn’t mean he accept it as your victory.

We disagree because:

  1. Observation: we don’t see the same thing
  2. Interpretation: It is about seeing the glass half full or half empty. Influenced by past experiences and implicit rules
  3. Conclusion: They often reflect self-interest.

From Certainty to Curiosity

To understand why we reach two different conclusions, we need to confront all the three point. Be curious about the other to understand what he observed, why he think like this, and you will be about to know why you reached two different states.

When asking questions to the other, you have to feed him with your observation. Otherwise, at the end of the conversation, you will know why you disagree, but he wouldn’t know and keep his position unchanged.


When you are right but the other is denying it (for instance someone drinking, but not accepting the fact it is too much), another approach is to look at the consequences it has.

About bad news, taking the example of firing someone. Technically speaking, you don’t have to learn the other story, you will fire him anyway. However, discussing about the situation, what you know, what he knows, allows to do it smoothly, so he knows why he must go.

Don’t Assume They Mean It: Disentangle Intent From Impact

It is not uncommon that person A tends to please person B, but person B perceives it as an offense. We cannot guess why the person did it (the intent), because of these different bias interfere:

Intentions are part of human complexity. Some action are not based on rationality. Trying to express clearly our intention is difficult to achieve without going deep into our feelings.

Instead of thinking about the intent of the other person, we have to ask 3 questions:

We often think to action first, but miss the impact, disguised by our feelings, and take assumptions as truth. Here, it is a reminder that we are not in the other’s brain.

Abandon Blame: Map the Contribution System

Mapping contribution is about searching who is involved in the problem, and put yourself in question. This is about discussing who is to blame in the story, but to fix on piece on everyone. By searching who is responsible of what, we will dive into the why it happened, and see what is the true seed of the problem. This step must be done without judging. Otherwise, you trigger identity issues and would turn the other into a non-cooperative person.

Finding hard-to-spot contributions:

Tools to identify the contribution

Try to answer internally:

And then, talk about your observation, and explicit your reasoning, what you would have done differently.

The Feelings Conversation

Have your Feelings, or They Will Have You

Issues with feelings

Feelings are not always expressed directly, because we often try to mask them. However, if not considered, feelings can leak and burst into the conversation. It is hard to listen when having unexpressed feelings.

How to solve the issue

Love, anger, hurt, shame, feat, self-doubt, joy, sadness, jealousy, gratitude, loneliness

Feeling Translation

Feelings are expressed indirectly:

People trying to blame someone at first often have strong feelings.

Negociation with feeling

A compromise is having a mix of all options: trying to calm partially two emotions at a time. It is like having one red and one blue socks: one blue socks because you have a blue tuxedo, and having a red one because your wife bought you them recently and wanted your to wear them.

Negotiating is not doing a compromise. It is getting the best you can from the other.

  1. Check where feelings occur in the problem
  2. Identify the full spectrum
  3. Don’t evaluate, share it

Both side can have strong feelings at the same time. Expressing them with words (“I fell xx”) helps to avoid going into the trap of judgment / attribution

Both people need to acknowledge, and to know their feeling have been heard. It is letting them know that why you are arguing matters for you. However, this must not be done too soon. If everything is not expressed and facts not on the table, acknowledging would not be helpful. Acknowledging is a kind of check-point.

Sometimes, feelings are the things that leads to arguments. Look at parent-children interaction, sometimes arguments occur only because the child is searching for recognition, for attention that are not given to him.

The Identity Conversation

Ground Your Identity: Ask Yourself What’s at Stake

When you leave a job, because you want to get a better pay, or you want to move or any other reasons, you might still have good relationships with your colleagues, mentors. Saying “I will leave” is a kind of difficult conversation, because your identity is at stake.

We are facing another person, but also ourselves. You may indirectly ask questions like:

All these question require someone else, another person of “authority” to judge. A mentor for your skills, a friend for knowing if you are a good person, and a family to judge loving.

When thinking to them, we must not fall in the All or nothing, where we are either good or not good, but never in between. We must be able to accept things, not being in a denial nor overestimating, which doesn’t help to improve situation. To improve the image, imagine what you would like to be in 3 month or 10 years. Get perspective of what you would like to be.

Ground your identity

  1. Be aware of the identity issues
  2. Be able to consolidate your identity with new information. (we are more impacted by bad news than good news. We must learn to better integrate good news).

To help improving awareness, we need to find what triggers our identity issues in those conversation. When knowing which part is sensitive, check facts, proofs, that consolidate your identity. This is about getting a clear picture of who we are, our weaknesses and our strength.

Learn to regain the balance

We must learn to handle our feelings, but we must not try to control the other response. You cannot know if they took tea or coffee this morning. Measuring the success of a conversation based on if the person is upset at you is not a good indicator. It’s better to prepare to their response.

Sometimes, you would need to stop the conversation, to take a break. Talking all the time about the same problem is exhausting and doesn’t lead anywhere when you already know everything.

Don’t forget their identity is also involved.

Raise identity issue expliictly

Like feelings, expressing them clearly allows to clarify the whole situation. However, this is not appropriate all the time, for instance with a stranger, or talking about sex issues with a colleague.

Ask for help

For difficult event, it is difficult to cope on our own: accident, rape, aggression, … Asking for professional would help in such situations.

Create a Learning Conversation

What is Your Purpose ? When to Raise it and When to let go

You cannot spend all your time and energy on difficult conversation. There are time to talks, and time not to talk. However, there is no simple rules like “not before 8 a.m.” or “do not talk about X when Y”.

We would never know if raising or not raising the issue is a good idea. It is like the Schrodinger cat. You never know until you try.

Three kind of conversations that don’t make sense

Do not try to change someone

In some way, you are trying to shape/attack their story, and therefore we would argue but not listen. It raises defensiveness. They will be more likely to change if they feel free.

Letting go

Even if we improve in dealing with this kind of conversation, there would be always times where you cannot win, or you don’t have the patience to talk.

Liberating asumption:

Getting Started: Begin from the Third Story

The most stressful moment is the beginning of the conversation. This is here where we can influence the direction.

Why typical openings don’t work

How to better start: The thirdt story

The third story is an invisible conversation, which is neither your or their. This is the story a third party which has no stake would have. This is like thinking like a mediator. There is no right or wrong, this is just different point of view.

Extend an Invitation

Describe the problem in a way both party accept. Agree that you both need to do something to solve it, without imposing. Be persistent, make them as a partner


  1. Explore each other story to see what are the point of views
  2. Share the impact on you
  3. Take responsibilities for contribution
  4. Describe feelings
  5. Reflect on the identity issues.

Learning: Listen from the Inside Out

The most frequent complain in difficult conversation is that the other person doesn’t want to learn. The advice is to spend more time listening at them. Listening must be authentic. When listening, to acknowledge the person, you have to summarize what the other said without judgment.

When asking for the other person to talk, don’t disguise statement into questions, like “isn’t you who did X ?”. Ask open-ended questions, ask for concrete information, details.

Acknowledging is not agreeing. Acknowledging is more accepting their information. However, agreeing is about jugement, or positioning.

Expression: Speak for Yourself With Clarity and Power

Being a good orator doesn’t mean you would better handle this conversation. A larger vocabulary doesn’t help.

Do not be afraid of titles. Failure to express doesn’t let you control the relationship. Feel entitled, not obligated.

Help people to understand your view, share your information, share how you get to those conclusions.


This book is interesting to read, but is far from being the best. There are many repeats, and it could be written more concisely. When reading it, I have the impression to have a patching manual, some bribe of information, and no strong basis.

The start is good, stating you have three conversation in parallel, three views. However, learning how to exploit this statement, it’s like a cook book with incomplete recipe.

The book does as if all difficult conversations were all similar, and that role doesn’t matter. Because difficult conversation are difficult for sometimes both, sometimes only one person.

The book is missing “experiments”, with “group A” vs “group B”. It only uses a few examples, where the author tries to rewrite the story by changing what have been said, as if it would mecanically change the outcome. How do you know ? You don’t ask twice to be married with the same person.

In their introduction, they said “we get positive feedbacks, but also negative one, that things did not improved”.

For me, at least, it allows to better analyse conversation. However, the tools are quite useless. Too many, too vague, not stable.

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