3 Kinds of Difficult Conversations

Fifteen years of research at the Harvard Negotiation Project has produced some interesting information about what goes on during difficult conversations and conflict.

In our workshop Cultivating Winning Relationships we explore the conversation strategies designed to cultivate winning relationships. Within these strategies there are three basic kinds of conversations, no matter what the subject.

In each of these conversations we make predictable errors that distort our thoughts and feelings.

  1.  The “Competence” conversation. In this conversation the focus is on what has happened and connects to the perceived competence (or incompetence) of the other person. What makes this a difficult conversation is that there is usually a disconnect or disagreement about what happened or what should happen next. Stop arguing about who’s right: explore each other’s stories and try to learn something new. Don’t assume meanings. Disentangle intent from impact. Abandon blaming anyone and think in terms of contributions to the solution.
  2. The “Likeability” conversation. This conversation focuses on the feelings and emotions that have been triggered, the connection for each of us is it brings into question our ‘likeability’, Every difficult conversation asks and answers questions about feelings, which are formed in response to our thoughts based on negotiable perceptions. Are they valid? Appropriate? Often feelings are not addressed directly and thus they interfere with the conversation even more.
  3. The “Significance” conversation. This conversation connects with a person’s contribution to the team and their reputation. It is where we examine what’s at stake: what do I stand to lose or gain? What impact might this have on my career, marriage, self-esteem, our relationship? These issues determine the degree to which we feel off-centered and anxious.

Sometimes a third party can help facilitate difficult conversations. Talking it through with an Ally can help decipher the underlying components of a difficult conversation. With a coach, you can examine your assumptions, your emotions and your personal identity. You can learn to structure difficult conversations in a way that improves relationships instead of risking them.

Even with the best laid plans, however, emotions can get the best of us and a conversation can derail. It’s never too late to start the discussion over. Ask your Ally to help so that your difficult conversations become a pathway to learn and grow.

I’d love to hear from you.