Talk your way out of trouble

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 28 March, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 28 March, 2009, 12:00am

Easy two-way conversation is a great idea. The theory goes that two disagreeing parties choose to mediate, negotiate and discuss proactively rather than plunge into out-and-out war.

Instead of screaming, swearing and stomping their feet like frustrated toddlers, they obtain exactly what they want, when they want it, and float off in a pastel pink cloud full of sweetness and light, at peace with all mankind.

Putting this happy theory into practice is tougher than it sounds. More often than not, whether in the boardroom, the bedroom, across the kitchen table or battling over the television remote, we find ourselves refusing to talk or, if we open our mouths, bristle with rage and frustration.

Anger, guilt and hurt, all of these and more are products of conversations that go wrong. And our relationships at work, with friends, with our children or our neighbours are all potential collateral damage.

But there is a solution. The product of years of intensive research by the Harvard Negotiation Project (HNP), a specialist department at Harvard University in the United States, one small blue book is designed to help us flick a switch and learn to talk sensibly and effectively.

The crux of the title, Difficult Conversations, is that we need to take a systematic approach to diagnosing communication and relationship problems. By doing so, we can transform those dreaded, difficult conversations into what the HNP calls learning conversations. In this way, said the book's authors, HNP affiliates, co-founders and negotiation experts Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton and Sheila Heen, every human contact could be more fulfilling, regardless of differences of experience, belief or feeling.

Based on the shared experience of Harvard students, colleagues and clients, and the private lives of its three authors, the book said that almost anything could be tricky to talk about. Sexuality, race, gender, politics and religion are classic examples of topics that can raise people's blood pressure sky high in seconds. However, 'discomfort and awkwardness are not limited to topics on the editorial page', the authors wrote.

We can feel as upset by a neighbour's thudding music as we can by the dread of dealing with tricky in-laws or being ordered to fire a popular team member as part of a redundancy exercise.

'Anytime we feel vulnerable or our self-esteem is implicated, when the issues at stake are important and the outcome uncertain, when we care deeply about what is being discussed or about the people with whom we are discussing it, there is potential for us to experience the conversation as difficult,' the book said. With that in mind, the authors focus on making conversations of all shapes and sizes less stressful and more productive. They also teach readers how to do this with decency and integrity, and in a way that helps them maintain their peace of mind.

One of the great advantages of this book is that it resembles something of a living organism, being the brainchild of the HNP's eponymous course. Founded in 1979, the HNP's mission is to improve the theory, teaching and practice of negotiation and dispute resolution.

The project's ultimate goal is to help people deal more constructively with conflicts ranging from the interpersonal to the international. This encompasses theory building, education and training, real world intervention and a host of written materials - with Difficult Conversations among them.

The authors, experienced class lecturers, stated that anyone who wanted to improve their communication and problem-solving skills must undergo some self-reflection. They expect their words to inspire people to re-examine old and comfortable assumptions and take new ideas for a test drive.

'Changing how you deal with difficult conversations takes work,' they said. 'Like changing your golf swing, adapting to driving on the other side of the road, or learning a new language, the change can feel awkward at first ... and it can feel threatening.'

Although Difficult Conversations first hit the shelves in 1999, what it has to say is just as relevant today. It locks on to what the HNP sees as the interpersonal elements of negotiation - in other words communication and relationships. So, as with this renowned university department's upcoming programme, the bottom line is all about teaching people like you and me how to be less afraid of what we or others might say, and how to make and keep things right.

Five Insights

1 Each difficult conversation is really three conversations. There is an underlying structure to what's going on in every conversation of every kind, say Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton and Sheila Heen, the authors of Difficult Conversations. Whatever we say falls into one of three categories: the 'what happened' conversation; the 'feelings' conversation; and the 'identity' conversation. Understanding this structure is a powerful first step in improving how we deal with conversations.

2 We need to stop arguing about who's right. We need to accept that people disagree; that disagreement is no bad thing; and that it doesn't necessarily lead to a difficult conversation. 'We disagree with people all the time, and often no one cares very much,' the authors say. When people refuse to agree with what we want them to agree with, we feel frustrated, hurt or misunderstood. This is when we must resist arguing and choose to explore each other's stories.

3 Learn to disentangle intent from impact. Intentions strongly influence our judgments of others, the authors say. If we think someone intends to hurt us, we judge them more harshly. But our assumptions about intentions are often wrong, so we need to understand how our minds work when devising stories about what others intend.

4 Have your feelings or they will have you. 'Feelings matter, they are often at the heart of difficult conversations,' the authors say. 'Managing feelings can be enormously challenging [and] our failure to acknowledge and discuss feelings derails a startling number of difficult conversations.' Working feelings into a conversation is almost always helpful as long as you do so in a positive way.

5 Don't jump in feet first. Consider your opening carefully. 'The most stressful moment of a difficult conversation is often the beginning,' the authors say. 'We may learn in the first few seconds that the news for us is not good, that the other person sees things very differently, that we aren't likely to get what we want.'

Book Difficult Conversations
Authors Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton and Sheila Heen
Publisher Penguin