Getting Past Difficult Conversations

feelings in a cloud

How often are you confronted with conversations where you know it is probably going to be difficult?

Often, we are in situations where we need to have difficult conversations, but we want to avoid the whole confrontation. Usually, a difficult conversation is anything you find hard to talk about. We struggle with this challenge, which often leads to a breakdown in communication and a damaged relationship. Generally, we tend to view conflict as something negative rather than as a golden opportunity to finally resolve a situation peacefully.

I know I have worried about such encounters and pondered over and over how to deliver my message. Often we get into a dilemma: should I avoid or confront? Such conversations can cause a lot of stress and anxiety and delivering a difficult message can feel like “throwing a hand grenade” (Stone et al. 1999). The ultimate challenge is to turn the damaging battle of warring messages into a more constructive and learning approach. 

Find out below how to follow five easy steps to have a learning conversation.

*See five steps below as a guide are entirely adapted from “Difficult Conversations: How To Discuss What Matters Most” by Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton & Sheila Heen; 1999. Penguin Books. 

Step 1: Figure Out the Problem

Focus on Three Conversations – Clarifying the Conflict

What is My and the Other’s Story: Understanding! How has the story has impacted you and others? Figure out any intentions from all players involved. Determine the contributors to the problem, describe behavior, feelings, and attribution patterns.

The Feelings Conversation: Feelings are at the heart of the situation. Understand our bundle of emotions – attributions and judgments. Explore each player’s emotional footprint. Determine needs to change to feel differently in the future.

The Identity Conversation: Looking inward and figuring out what is at stake. How to restore a sense of identity? Finding your footing to keep balanced and be better grounded.

Step 2: Shift to a Learning Stance

Check Your Purposes: What do you hope to accomplish by having this conversation?

Shift your stance to support learning, sharing, and problem solving.

Decide Whether to Raise the Issue: Is this the best way to address the issue and achieve your purposes? Is the issue really embedded in your Identity Conversation? Can you affect the problem by changing your contributions? If you don’t raise it, what can you do to help yourself let go?


Step 3: Start from the Third Story

Describe the problem as the difference between your stories. Include both viewpoints as a legitimate part of the discussion. Share your purposes. Invite them to join you as a partnering sorting out the situation together.

Step 4: Explore Their Story and Yours

Listen to understand their perspective on what happened. Ask questions and acknowledge the feelings behind the arguments and accusations. Paraphrase to see if you’ve got it and try to unravel how the two of you got to this place. Share your own viewpoint, your past experiences, intentions, feelings. Reframe, reframe, and reframe to keep on track and lead the conversation. From truth to perceptions; blame to contribution; accusations to feelings.

Step 5: Problem-Solving

Invent options that meet each side’s most important concerns and interests. Look to standards for what should happen. Keep in mind the standard of mutual caretaking of accommodation and reciprocation. Consider alternatives if you can’t come to a mutual agreement. Willingness to accept consequences. Relationships that always go one way rarely last. Talk about how to keep communication open as you go forward and taking time into consideration.


Stay tuned for more tips on how to reframe difficult conversations and adapt your communication style to avoid misunderstandings. You will continue to learn easy breakthrough strategies to have better negotiations, get past difficult conversations, and achieve the results you want.

Source: Stone, D.,  Patton, B., & Heen S. (1999). Difficult Conversations: How To Discuss What Matters Most. Penguin Books.

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