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How to Discuss What Matters Most

Guide Books Review: 'Difficult Conversations' by Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton and Sheila Heen

Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most
Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton and Sheila Heen

Penguin Books / 249 pages / $23.75

I cannot say too much about what a revelation this book was and how critical it is in both a personal and professional setting. If I had known in the past what I know after reading this book, A LOT of anxiety and misunderstandings would have been avoided — and missed opportunities seized.

It also helped me visualize a lot more potential wins for us as farmers.

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The authors of Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most, capture what’s at stake in a way that has got to grab our attention:

“Conflict and differing perspectives, handled well and efficiently, should become a competitive asset — and an engine for rapid learning and innovation.”

Here is the core of what I learned. A difficult conversation doesn’t have to be a battle. It doesn’t have to be one person’s story trumping another

The better option, say the authors, is to decode the structure of a difficult conversation, and to move toward the goal of having “learning conversations” instead.

Each difficult conversation, it turns out, is really three separate conversations: the “What Happened,” the “Feelings” and the “Identity” conversation.

So let’s look at that more closely. The challenge of an identity conversation is that it sets up a situation that threatens our self-esteem and who we feel we are. It makes us take a defensive battle stance, the authors say, and it makes us assume that the conversation is supposed to prove that we’re “competent or incompetent, good or bad, lovable or unlovable, with no in-between.”

Our typical approach to this type of conversation is to put on full armour, play defense and protect our all-or-nothing self-image.

Shifting to a learning mindset means understanding the identity issues for BOTH people. Rather than all-or-nothing self-centred assumptions, we now assume that there may equally be a lot at stake for each, and that neither is perfect.

“Instead of wanting to persuade and get your way, you want to understand what has happened from the other person’s point of view, explain your point of view, share and understand feelings, and work together to figure out a way to manage the problem going forward,” say the authors.

Another key to deconstructing a difficult conversation starts with grasping the concept of contribution. This means mapping out how each person contributed to bringing about the current situation, and it will move you from unproductive blame to more positive goals including comprehension and change.

One way to do this is by exploring each other’s story (i.e. version of facts) by shifting from certainty to curiosity: “Instead of asking yourself ‘How can they think that?!’ ask ‘I wonder what information they have that I don’t?’” suggest the authors.

It’s important for farm business owners to lower the risk threshold of a difficult conversation and improve the odds of a constructive outcome because, as the authors point out, a major reason that businesses and organizations so often fail to make a successful change is that “successful implementation (of change) requires people to have difficult conversations… (and) the ability to manage difficult conversations effectively is foundational to achieving any significant change….”

The book also explores:

  • What is the “third story” and why you should begin there when having a difficult conversation.
  • How to listen from the inside out.
  • Why you must acknowledge feelings before attempting to problem-solve.
  • How to use the “Me-Me And” approach to overcome the common fear of being misunderstood.
  • The importance in some instances of naming the dynamic between you and the other person to clear the air.
  • Why (and how) you should spend seven minutes now to save seven hours later.
  • Creating a checklist for preparing for and walking through a difficult conversation.

“Difficult conversations are almost never about getting the facts right. They are about conflicting perceptions, interpretations and values,” say the authors.

“We all have different stories about the world because we each take in different information and then interpret this information in our own unique ways. In difficult conversations, too often we trade only conclusions back and forth, without stepping down to where most of the real action is.”

As farmers, isn’t that where we need to be, where the real action is?

About the author


April M. Stewart is the owner of Alba PR, a brain-to-brain communication design firm, and the creator of “The Farmer’s Survival Guide: How to Connect With 21st Century Consumers,” a blog and workshops which look at communication impact boosters. She is also a sixth-generation Quebec dairy farmer, president of Canadian Young Speakers for Agriculture, and a member of the Canadian Agri-Business Education Foundation board. You can find her on Twitter under @FarmersSurvival.



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