Difficult conversations are, as Douglas Stone – associate director of the Harvard Negotiation Project – puts it, made of 3 conversations: the content conversation, the feelings conversation and the identity conversation. Each conversation represents a layer of the story that is in our mind and heart when we find a situation to be difficult for us. Most of the times we skip the second and third conversation and get stuck in the content conversation, because that’s where we, naively, believe we can control the conversation: facts, data, numbers, figures, logical arguments, observations etc.
What makes the conversation difficult is that it triggers unpleasant feelings in us, which means it’s not about what happened (the content conversation), it’s about how it made us feel (feelings conversation), what it means to us and how it affects our future (the identity conversation).
In this instance, let’s talk about the content conversation. It’s about what has been said and done and, usually, we approach the content conversation from 3 perspectives:
- We assume we’re right – it’s in our core programming to hold our own beliefs, theories and assumptions as being correct and it’s totally fine. Except when we’re in a difficult conversation, because this often keeps us away from understanding how the other person may as well be right. And, if this is the case, how important is it, then, if you are right or not?
- We invent intentions – we falsely believe that the other person has bad intentions. When we’re in profound disagreement and they keep sticking to their view, we adopt the “They’re out to get us” stance, which is, again, not exactly a constructive way to tackle a difficult conversation.
- We assign blame– if we’re not looking to be right, we’re looking to find someone who’s guilty for whatever happened. Once we find the guilty party, we’re relaxed that we “solved” the problem and falsely believe it’s not happening again. The reality is that blaming invites defensive behaviours and the person we’re trying to blame will do everything they can to protect themselves and divert the blame somewhere else. How close does that get us to the solution? Not so much.
In the video bellow, you’ll have the opportunity to get a deeper understanding of the 3 perspectives above, what their impact is on the content conversation and what we should be doing more instead. The video is part of a larger seminar on Difficult Conversations that we delivered for one of our clients and they were happy to let us use it as well.