Greetings Everyone,
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 Really Matters

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 what ’s 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 didn’t care on some level about your relationship with the other person, you wouldn’t 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.

The Path to Improvement:  
Strengths or Weaknesses?

The answer was always the same: weaknesses, not strengths, deserve the most attention. The most strengths-focused culture is the United States, but still only a minority of people, 41 percent, felt that knowing their strengths would help them improve the most. The least strengths-focused cultures are Japan and China. Only 24 percent believe that the key to success lies in their strengths. The majority of people in the world don't think that the secret to improvement lies in a deep understanding of their strengths. Interestingly, in every culture the older people (55 and above) were the least fixated on their weaknesses. Perhaps they have acquired more self-acceptance and realize the futility of trying to be what they are not.

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.

1. The "What Happened?" conversation. There is usually disagreement about what happened or what should happen. Stop arguing about who’s right: explore each other’s 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.

2. 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.

3. The "Identity" conversation. This is where we examine what’s 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 anxious.

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 it’s 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 better.

Here are five steps to consider when engaging in difficult conversations:

1. Decipher the underlying structure: what happened, what the feelings are, how identity is involved

2. Interpret the significance of what is said and what is not

3. Identify the erroneous but deeply ingrained assumptions that keep you stuck

4. Manage strong emotions, yours and theirs

5. Spot ways your self-image affects the conversation, and ways the conversation affects your self image

What You Can Change, What You Can’t

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 can’t 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 can’t. 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 other’s person’s perspective. Enter into the conversation with a learning objective. Don’t 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 feelings.

Final Thoughts:
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 Click on Partners and Amazon and you will find Susan Scott’s book.

Please pass along this newsletter to your friends and family. If they would like to become subscribers, they can do that by visiting my web site. Have a great month and I look forward to chatting next month. In the meantime, please drop me note and tell me how things are going for you.

Coach Jerry

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Jerry Pinney

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. Jerry’s ESC assignments have included coaching for several Executive Directors, and consulting on various Board Development projects and on a number of strategic planning projects.

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phone: 312-842-4577,
fax: 312-842-4705

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