This month’s letter discusses the importance of our
conversations. It has been said that relationships are
really conversations. The better the conversations,
the better the relationships. If we can improve our
conversations, we can improve our relationships.
Tough Conversations: Talking Over What
Some conversations are so difficult that we do anything to
avoid them. Then, when things have really built up, we finally
have no choice but to confront the issue, the colleague, our
spouse, or the other person with whom we feel so uncomfortable.
We need to talk usually precedes an argument rather than a
conversation. Why are such conversations difficult? Because
we are stuck between knowing what we really feel and knowing
what we shouldn't say. We are distracted by whats going
on inside and uncertain about what is okay to share. There
is so much going on between you and the other person, it is
confusing. And, if you didnt care on some level about
your relationship with the other person, you wouldnt
be struggling with this in the first place.
Conversations are difficult because emotions get involved.
Emotions are generated in that part of the brain called the
amygdala. It is a more primitive part of the brain. When stimulated,
it calls the body into fight or flight mode. Humans are genetically
hard-wired to react to emotional triggers by either fighting
or fleeing, two actions which had survival benefits. Those
humans who were able to fight successfully, or to flee danger,
survived and reproduced. Therefore, we are genetically predisposed
to fight or flight.
However, we are now supposed to be socially conditioned to
operate in more "civilized" ways. It is no longer
appropriate to throw stones or draw fists or guns. We are
supposed to handle things with conversations. Are we much
different now than our ancestors? Genetically, no. This explains
why we all have impulses to either blast someone or to avoid
them altogether. We are in fact not hard-wired to sit down
and talk it over with someone when there is a problem.
A Map of the Territory
What if there was a map to follow when you had to have a difficult
conversation? What if there were steps to consider and directions
to follow? Untangling the complexities of difficult conversations
and breaking them down to basic components would make it easier
to say what needs to be said, and still preserve relationships.
Fifteen years of research at the Harvard Negotiation Project
has produced some interesting information about what goes
on during conflict. The book, Difficult Conversations: How
to Discuss What Matters Most, is written by Douglas Stone,
Bruce Patton, Sheila Heen and Roger Fisher (Penguin Books,
2000). Given that in life we prepare ourselves extensively
for almost everything including our educations and careers,
it is surprising that we haven't studied conversations more.
Now there is some data to help us to have effective conversations,
especially when they involve conflict.
All difficult conversations share a common structure. To see
the structure, we need to understand what is being said, and
also what is not being said. We need to see what both people
are thinking and feeling but not saying to each other.
Understanding the underlying structures of conversations makes
them easier. There are basically three kinds of conversations,
no matter what the subject. In each of these kinds of conversations,
we make predictable errors that distort our thoughts and feelings.
Every conversation involves grappling with these three components.
Engaging successfully requires learning to operate within
each of these three domains. Managing all three simultaneously
may seem daunting, but its easier to do than facing
the consequences of engaging in conversations blindly. Taking
the time to consider each of these factors before having the
difficult conversation is a first step to handling conversations
- The "What Happened?" conversation. There
is usually disagreement about what happened or what
should happen. Stop arguing about whos right:
explore each others stories and try to learn something
new. Don't assume they meant it. Disentangle intent
from impact. Abandon blaming anyone and think in terms
of contributions to the problem.
- The "Feelings" conversation. Every difficult
conversation also asks and answers questions about feelings.
Are they valid? Appropriate? Should I admit them or
deny them? What about the other person's feelings, will
I hurt them? What if they get angry? Often feelings
are not addressed directly and so they interfere with
the conversation even more.
- The "Identity" conversation. This is where
we examine whats at stake: what do I stand to
lose or gain? Am I competent or incompetent, worthy
or unlovable? 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
Here are five steps to consider when engaging in difficult
What You Can Change, What You Cant
- Decipher the underlying structure: what happened,
what the feelings are, how identity is involved
- Interpret the significance of what is said and what
- Identify the erroneous but deeply ingrained assumptions
that keep you stuck
- Manage strong emotions, yours and theirs
- Spot ways your self-image affects the conversation,
and ways the conversation affects your self image
No matter how much we prepare we can still get tangled up
in conversations where what happened is more complicated than
initially presumed. We will have information the other person
is unaware of and there may be things we cant share.
We will face emotionally charged situations that feel threatening
because they put important aspects of our identity at risk.
In these cases, look at what we can change instead of what
we cant. We can change the way we respond to these challenges.
Typically we enter into difficult conversations prepared to
explain our own view points. What is needed is to hold off
until we explore as much as we can the others persons
perspective. Enter into the conversation with a learning objective.
Dont assume that you understand enough to explain things.
Sometimes a third party can help facilitate difficult conversations.
Talking it through with your personal coach can help you decipher
the underlying components of a difficult conversation. Your
coach can help you examine your assumptions, your emotions
and your personal identity. You can have difficult conversations
in a way that improves relationships instead of risking hurt
One of the best books that I have
discovered on this subject is Fierce Conversations: Achieving
Success at Work & in Life, One Conversation at a Time
by Susan Scott. I have it along with other good books listed
on my web site
http://coachpinney/amazon page. where you will find Susan
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For the last twenty-two
years Jerry Pinney has been president of his own consulting firm.
Currently he focuses his efforts on providing executive and personal
coaching to persons who are interested in improving their quality
of life and consulting to small and mid-sized companies and nonprofits.
He is a facilitator for peer advisory groups with The Alternative
Board and is a Certified One Page Planning Consultant. Jerry has
over three decades of experience in the food industry, and possesses
a unique perspective of customer service, marketing and strategic
planning. In addition to overall general management qualifications,
Jerry has proven expertise in operational planning and business
development. His food industry career started at Jewel Food Stores
followed by a long career with IGA, with their retailers, wholesalers
and ten years as Vice President of Marketing. In addition Jerry
has served as Vice President of Membership for the National Grocers
Association, Sr. Vice President of Procurement for Shurfine International
and Executive Manager of The Zenon Hansen Foundation.
Jerry has also served on a number of nonprofit
boards including: President of the Volunteer Center of Northwest
Suburban Chicago. He is currently a Project Manager for the Executive
Service Corps of Chicago. Jerrys ESC assignments have included
coaching for several Executive Directors, and consulting on various
Board Development projects and on a number of strategic planning
Pinney & Associates
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